Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Farm - After the Tornado

The farm was hit by what was then called a F4 tornado about 15 years ago (they've changed the scale since then to EF3, EF4, etc.).   A F4 tornado has winds rated at 207-260 mph and after seeing the destruction, I'd guess that this one was at least half a mile wide (at least the destruction was that wide).

Grandma was living on the farm at the time and she somehow managed to survive while her house was completely destroyed around her.  The only part of the house that was still standing was the bathroom and a short section of the hallway next to it where she rode out the tornado.  

On a side note, in my opinion, the only reason that part of the hallway survived was because the house had been remodeled years before and a door had been relocated further down the hall.  The old doorway had 2x4 blocking nailed all around the opening so it could be drywalled, so it ended up being beefed-up much more than a typical wall with three 2x4's on each side of the opening, a thicker header, and horizontal blocking in the middle of the opening (I'm not sure why they even put that in, but they did).  She was in the hallway right by that old doorway when the tornado hit and I'm convinced that's why she survived.

She spent the night at a neighbor's house and the next day we (me, my parents, my aunt, etc.) went to pick her up, to see what was damaged, what could be salvaged, and what needed to be fixed.  I was expecting that the house roof might need to be tarped to keep the rain out, or the tin might have been blown off of the barns, but instead everything was just flattened and either gone or scattered.

Most of the landmarks like buildings or trees were missing and everything had a strange "eerie feel" to it. The destruction was hard to explain at times, the roof of her house was scattered about a quarter-mile away in a pile, a couple of small 1000 bu. grain bins "unzipped" into long sheets and tied themselves around some big cedar trees, about 80 round bales of hay completely disappeared, and some clothes were still on the hangers in a closet even though the doors had been ripped off. 

At the time, I was either between jobs, unemployed, under-employed, or self-employed depending on who was making the observation,  so I spent a lot of time over the next year cleaning everything up (I didn't single-handedly do everything myself, but I did a lot of it).

It was one of the biggest projects I've ever taken on; the work ranged from tearing down what was left of the house, to salvaging everything that could be salvaged, to fixing fences, to cutting gigantic piles of firewood from all the downed trees, to cleaning up debris spread out over 600-800 acres, etc.  It was one of the few times in my life when I was consistently working hard for 10-12 hours a day and wasn't complaining about it, I was waking up each morning ready to go to work, and each day I could look at what I had done and could be satisfied with both myself and my place in the world.  As a bonus, I was in the best shape I'd ever been in.

At first, I was starting to think that I was feeling that way about myself and the work because I was able to take chaos and destruction and put order to that chaos.  I gave serious thought to finding some sort of career that might have some of the same type of working conditions.  But, I wasn't exactly sure what kind of career that might be.

The more I worked around the farm, the more I thought about my past ideas about finding some land and raising cattle and deer, and the idea of farming this farm started to grow on me.  I don't know why it took so long to realize that I might have my best opportunity to farm if I actually tried to farm this family-owned land, but there was something about actually working on the farm that seemed to be making it more of a part of me.   

In a similar but different way, every piece of land I've hunted "belongs" to me in a way, but working to clean up, improve, or make a living from a piece of land is more than that.  

Once I'd decided to set my course towards farming right here on this piece of ground, my focus changed from possibly farming to figuring out a concrete plan to farm.  I started paying much closer attention to how everyone else around the farm was doing things and trying to decide exactly what and how I wanted to farm. 

It wasn't a straight line from there to here, I almost completely gave up on the idea more than once, a few times I thought about leaving Oklahoma and never coming back, I had extraordinary luck and undeserved help at times, but I eventually got there.

In a future post, I'll try to explain what my original farming plans were and how I actually started farming (the nuts and bolts part of the story).


  1. I was just visiting a community a few weeks ago when I entered a part of the town and commented that it must be a commuter town because it looked like the suburbs of a big city. Back home I looked it up on the maps but couldn't see how it could be a commuter town for anywhere since it was the biggest town around. Finally I googled something and came across an article that talked about the F5 tornado that wiped out that part of town a few years ago. Everything made sense.

    Things like that always amaze me of the power of tornadoes. Fortunately up here, just about everyone has a basement which is about the best place to ride out a tornado if one must. You can see an entire town like the one I recently visited wiped from the face of the earth and yet there were no fatalities.

    1. The best place to be in a tornado is definitely underground or as close as you can get to being underground.

      For whatever reason, basements aren't as common as you would think around here, but a lot of older houses had cellars and newer houses have storm shelters (either in the backyard or in the garage).

      The trouble is that some of the local weather people freak out so much over every little chance of a tornado that you start to tune it out after awhile (apparently they've never heard the story of Chicken Little).

    2. I have always heard the lack of basements is due to your soil type out there. Here we have a thick layer of very dense clay which makes a good surface to build on. I've heard out there the clay layer is not as dense making it hard to work with. You may also have higher water tables which are not good for basements for obvious reasons, unless you are looking for a basement pool.

    3. From what little I know, the clays are expansive types of clay which swell and shrink depending on the moisture levels.

      I'd be surprised if the water tables are too high for basements, it seems like water wells are usually relatively deep and often it can be hard to find water.

      My best guess is that most houses are built without basements because that's the way it been done for a long time. Most houses are built on a monolithic slab (possibly with some piers to deal with the clay), a brick veneer, and a truss roof system. The mechanical systems are either in a mechanical room or in the attic, so a basement isn't really that useful for the mechanical systems.

      When you look at the statistics, a tornado hitting your house is actually a rare event, so it's hard for a builder to justify spending a bunch of money on a basement when the housing market has always been tough. At least that's my theory.

      I spent a lot of time thinking about building a tornado-resistant house and I think that you could spend a little bit of money on a few details and easily improve a house chances in a tornado (but it wouldn't be as "sexy" as putting in a storm shelter).

    4. The only true tornado proof house that I know about are monolithic dome homes of thin shell concrete. There has been one that has survived a tornado, another one a hurricane and one a forest fire. The one that survived the hurricane is called Eye of the Storm and is easily googled. They don't have basements either.

    5. Tornado-proof is a whole other ballgame compared to being just tornado-resistant enough to survive with some damage.

      Simple things like:
      -installing hurricane straps to tie the roof to the walls,

      -lining the walls and ceilings of closets and utility rooms with plywood to create stiffened "cores" in the interior of the house,

      -stiffer heavy-duty garage doors (so they don't blow out as easy and also blow the roof off),

      -upgrading the wall and roof sheathing to thicker plywood than typical (5/8" instead of 1/2"),

      Depending on how big the tornado was, it might still be destroyed, but your chances of surviving might be just a little bit higher if the house is built just a little bit stronger.

      I always thought that a bermed house would be almost tornado-proof, and also kind of cool to build and live in. Throw in some passive solar design features and it would be even better.

  2. By the way, I'm still enjoying your story.

    1. As long as someone is enjoying it, I'll share the story.

  3. The other day, on my blog, I started a post on synchronicity. I didn't finish it, but that's common, some of the posts I put up have been loitering around in the unfinished stage for weeks or months.

    Anyhow, I see a fair amount of synchronicity at work in things, which I don't think is accidental. Not that I think its at work in everything, but you look at some things you are presented with, and you'll get that; "hmmm. . . well that's odd" feeling to it. Here's one. Your home place would have been hit by a tornado anyhow. But at that time, you were on a search and pondering leaving, but didn't. Perhaps an example of synchronicity.

    1. I've always tended to call it "coincidence", but "synchronicity" sounds a little better.

      I do agree that I sometimes see a lot of synchronicity (if I'm correctly understanding the meaning).

      As hard as the tornado was on my grandmother, I don't know if I'd be here on this farm if it hadn't hit the farm.

  4. I was struck by your comment on liking the physical aspect of the work. And I also suspect you were pleased by the sense of having a task, and seeing it completed.

    This is something that, having dabbled in both worlds, I've often been struck by, but you have to be in both worlds, I think, to realize that (as you have been). A lot of people who have never worked on physical tasks have a really vague concept of that. I''ll get, from time to time, some comment like "wow, you must be glad to be in here on a day like today not building fence". That can come from somebody who has never, ever, worked a job like that, or from somebody who has only worked a job like that. For the person who never has, all they can imagine is that it would be hard work. But they don't grasp that, unlike much of the office work people do, it has an obvious physical impact and completion point, so you derive the satisfaction of actually seeing the impact of your work. For people who have only worked jobs like that, there's an assumption that all work is like that, and that you have the added benefit of not being out in really hot weather or really cold weather, even if that means (which they usually don't grasp), that you are in an artificial atmospheric environment all day.

    1. I agree that there is something to be said about working on something from start to finish, building something that you can point to and say or think, "I built that".

      But, I think I would best describe my thoughts as I'd like to have a hand in every step of whatever I'm doing.

      During the tornado cleanup, I was the one deciding what fence needed to be rebuilt, how it would be fixed, I'd do the work, and when I was done, that fence would "belong to me". (greatly simplified, but as close as I can get to describing it). If someone had been there telling what to do ever step of the way, I still would have built that fence but it wouldn't "belong to me" in the same way.

      It's similar to how a small whitetail doe stalked and killed by a 13-yr old with a bow is a bigger trophy than a huge buck killed out of the back of a pickup by a man on a "guided" hunt.

      I think that's what appealed to me.