Maxine and Richard Komah rode out the Moore tornado of May 20 huddled underground with their distraught young grandchildren and some neighbors, hanging onto the heaving door of their shelter as their house was torn to shreds above them.
Since then they have endured it all, from scammers seeking to charge them $6,000 for debris removal, to the outpouring of love and support from the surrounding community. Among the casualties: The eagle fans from the couple’s dance regalia, given to each of them by Maxine’s father. But they are thankful for the storm shelter that was a major selling point when they bought the house back in 2005.
The Komahs are among 20 Native families who lost their homes in the devastating tornado, which leveled two elementary schools and killed 23 people, including nine children. The two-mile-wide behemoth cut a 17-mile-long swathe through the center of Oklahoma and put Moore on the map in the very act of wiping part of it off.
"I hope no one ever experiences what me and my family experienced," said Richard, Comanche. "If they do, make sure they're safe underground in a cellar. It will save your life."
That Monday started out like many other days that pass for a normal spring in Oklahoma and the surrounding states: Weather reports had an edge. Weather patterns were similar to those that had hit the area of Carney, Oklahoma the day before. The couple kept an eye on the reports, stayed close to home and pulled their grandchildren—Julie, 11, and Rickey, 9—out of Briarwood Elementary School early. By lunchtime, forecasts were telling Moore area residents to brace themselves. When Maxine arrived at Briarwood Elementary—one of the schools later destroyed by the EF-5 tornado—she saw that many other parents and guardians had had the same idea.
"There were a lot of people checking their kids out," she told Indian Country Today Media Network. "It was pretty chaotic. It was just starting to rain when I got there. By the time I got them in the car, it was starting to pour down rain."
Maxine drove the five blocks home to find two neighbors already in her shelter. Placing her grandchildren inside, she went to her patio to watch for the storm, while Richard monitored the weather reports.
"I was sitting on the patio and watching the sleet start," said Maxine. "It was pea-sized, and it started increasing, getting bigger hail."
It was at that moment that the forecasters said the tornado was approaching fourth Street in Moore, not far from their home.
"We got scared," said Richard. "That's when we started turning everything off. That's when we got in the cellar."
They grabbed a flashlight, folders, documents and a few other items and headed for the shelter at about 3:15. Maxine held a pie pan over her head as protection from the hail. Even after Maxine and the others were safe in the shelter, she kept getting text messages from relatives saying, “ 'I hope you're underground.' "
Suddenly came that unmistakable sound: a locomotive bearing directly down on them. Except that it sounded more like 10 trains.
"They say it sounds like a train, and I never experienced that," said Richard. "I'm kind of hard of hearing. I said, 'Maxine, do y'all hear that?' I said, 'Let me look.' There's a vent on my door, and I had to get up close to it. Sure enough, you could hear it in the distance, like a roaring. It got louder and louder and louder. I said, 'It's going to get right on top of us.' "
Then the twister hit. The vent on top of the shelter flew off, and dust whooshed in. The roar crescendoed, and their ears popped from the abrupt drop in pressure.
"It sucked the oxygen out where you couldn't hardly breathe," said Maxine. The shelter shook, and they could hear debris hitting the door.
"I knew my grandkids were freaking out," said Richard. "They were crying. I told them, 'Calm down. Everything's going to be ok. We're going to get through this.' "
Next: An Interminable 15 Minutes, Then Silence