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Saturday June 1, 2013 Recapping my first tornado evacuation

Updated: 1:08pm, June 1

Tornado

OKLAHOMA CITY -- My mother, bless her heart, emailed me from Virginia asking if I was all right -- and if it sounded like a train.

Actually, my first tornado experience sounded like a crowded parking garage.

That’s where all the guests and employees of the Sheraton Oklahoma City, plus everyone attending the minor-league hockey game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, were evacuated to Friday night as another furious storm and series of tornadoes rolled through the area.

At least nine people were killed, including two children, more than 90 more injured and 86,000 homes and businesses were without power, according to news outlets.

I’ve lived in Florida most of my life, so I’m familiar with hunkering down when it comes to dealing with hurricanes. But with hurricanes the warnings come days in advance.

skiesSo it was somewhat surreal, as I finished up a story from my 10th floor hotel room, to hear sirens wailing from the city streets below last night. They brought back memories -- and I’m dating myself here -- of the old Civil Defense drills when I was kid, but I figured this was no drill.

I texted a UF colleague who grew up in the Midwest.

“Yes, those are tornado sirens,” she texted back.

Not long after that, sirens began screeching in our hotel, with a voice ordering us to evacuate to the basement of the hotel immediately.

And down I went.

It got crowded there quickly, and soon security was herding everyone into the adjacent city parking garage, where hundreds of people were glued to their cell phones -- some sat in their cars listening to radio reports -- for weather updates or talking/texting with friends and relatives.

Among the evacuated, of course, were the softball teams here for the NCAA Women’s College World Series, all of which are staying at the Sheraton. The Gators squad, however, had left for dinner in Norman, some 30 minutes south, about two hours earlier. 

Once in the garage, a handful of people moved toward the entrance ramps and tried to peek out and get a look at the incoming storm (I took the photo to the right). That didn’t go over too well with the guys in the badges. Just 11 days removed from the monster storm that ravaged and killed 24 people in nearby Moore, these folks weren’t messing around.

TV remote They wanted (and ordered) everyone to back up against walls.

[Note: I actually did a couple remote interviews for news stations in Jacksonville and Baltimore. Not exactly Jim Cantore (whom I’ve never seen working from a garage), but hey, they asked.]

It wasn’t long before the center of the storm rolled through downtown, with chunks of hail bouncing into the garage -- then lots and lots of water. A couple pipes even busted open with leaks.

GarageIn the grand scheme of things, what we were dealing was a mere inconvenience compared to the gridlock on interstates 35 and 40, where twisters touched down, bouncing cars and even semi-trucks about. The towns of El Reno and Yukon reportedly took the brunt of the storm’s fury.

As for the Gators team, they were at dinner in Norman when parts of the storm turned that direction. People there were evacuated to Memorial Stadium, home to the University of Oklahoma’s football, where they holed up in the locker room until things were safe.

The team got back to the team hotel in OKC around midnight, but had to take some back roads because sections of the interstates were closed down.

This morning, everything in our little corner of town is fine, for which we are thankful. Outside, some debris littered the streets -- tree branches, downed traffic signs -- but nothing approaching what some residents were dealing with in other areas.

In the lobby of the Sheraton, softball players and coaches were readying for the reboot of the WCWS, which had two games cancelled Friday night and thus pushed the bracket schedule back a couple games.

The Gators, who were set to play Nebraska at 11 a.m. today (local time), will now play tonight at 6 p.m. (or 7 ET).

The weather, we’re told, will be beautiful.

Thankfully.

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