May 27, 1997 | A Short (True) Story

We were just kids.

Our parents weren’t home. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

Our brother was fifteen, but he wasn’t there either. Not that he could or would have helped the situation. But still. He wasn’t there.

My sister, Asher, and I weren’t the only ones in this terrifying predicament. We lived in Cedar Park, a small town just north of Austin, Texas that was a family oriented community and there were lots of kids our age.

May 27, 1997 was a Tuesday. School had let out for summer the previous Friday, so all of our parents were at work. When you’re fourteen, being home alone is awesome. You have free reign of your time and can raid the refrigerator and watch as much TV as you want. And since it was only a few days into summer vacation, the novelty of being out of school hadn’t worn off yet. By the end of summer, I’d usually grow a bit bored, having nothing to do. Of course, there were chores required of my siblings and me, but those just had to be completed by the time our parents arrived home in the evening. We usually waited until the very last possible minute before we started on them.

So with my free time between waking up and when my parents got home, I got to do whatever I wanted.

On May 27, 1997, I slept in, as teenagers have a tendency to do. I drank a Coke for breakfast and I watched TV. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with celebrity life and fashion, so I watched a Fashion Emergency marathon on E! Asher and I got into a stupid fight over something that didn’t matter and that I can’t remember, and she left the living room to go take a nap.

And shortly thereafter, it started.

Joan Rivers was running her mouth and out of nowhere, her Brooklyn accent was replaced by a loud, obnoxious series of blaring beeps.

A crawler appeared at the bottom of the screen.

The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the following counties: Bell, Frio, Hays, Hill, Kendall, McLennan, Navarro, Travis, Uvalde, Williamson…

Cedar Park is located in Williamson County, so I glanced out the large windows of the living room. The sky was blue and clear and it looked as hot as was typical for that time of year. It wouldn’t last. I knew that. But there probably wouldn’t be tornadoes. I knew that, too. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

Growing up in Texas, you become accustomed to the warning, “conditions are favorable for tornadoes,” but for some reason, the worst case scenario always evaded us. A Tornado Watch just meant it was going to storm, and growing up in Texas, you live for those delicious spring and summer storms that give you a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nevertheless, because Texas is technically part of Tornado Alley, you also grow up knowing what to do in the event that a tornado actually shows up. My dad, being not quite a helicopter parent, but one who insisted that we were always prepared for the worst, drilled into us the safety precautions from a young age.

“Stay away from windows.”

“Go to a location in the center of the house.”

“Bring blankets and pillows.”

“Bring a battery-operated radio.”

“Bring a flashlight.”

But even at fourteen, I’d never experienced having to take cover in such a manner. Instead, severe thunderstorms were merely an exciting novelty. So I turned off Joan Rivers and switched to the weather radar, and there it was.

1997_Central_Texas_tornado_outbreak_radar_2048z
Radar from the KEWX WSR-88D radar station in New Braunfels, Texas.

A big blob of green, yellow, orange, and red slowly floating its way across the map of Texas, taking a diagonal, southwestern path and heading straight for us. I immediately ran to the kitchen to grab another Coke, jumped back on the couch, and patted the cushion, inviting our black labrador mix, Abby, to join me for the exciting show.

She and I sat on the couch for a while, anticipating when the glorious rain would arrive, looking forward to it squelching the stifling the heat and providing a nice, dark canopy to shield the neighborhood from the searing rays of the sun.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that the rain never arrived. This storm would be different.

Sometime later, the blaring series of beeps sounded again and the robotic warning came over the speakers.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for areas in Central Texas, including Bell County, Frio County, Hays County, Hill County, Kendall County, McLennan County, Navarro County, Travis County, Uvalde County, Williamson County. A tornado has been spotted in McLennan County west of Box Ranch Road and moving west-southwest to west of Mackey Ranch Road. Seek shelter…”

I glanced out the window. Still bright and sunny and McLennan County was a decent distance away from us. So I grew bored with the radar and lack of interesting weather and switched back to the E! channel.

I spent the next couple of hours using Abby as a pillow, only getting off the couch for a snack or another Coke, haphazardly checking the time to make sure I didn’t miss my window to start my chores. The warnings continued to randomly punctuate my shows, but I’d stopped paying attention to them for the most part.

It was not quite three p.m. when the sky finally turned ominously dark. There was still no rain, and I was still not tipped off by that.

And then, right around three p.m., maybe a bit after, the phone began to ring.

I wish I could say that one of my parents was the first to call, but they didn’t. The first person to call was my brother, Tim.

“I saw a tornado.”

Tim was perpetually full of shit.

I scoffed into the phone. “Yeah, right.”

“I did. It was in Buttercup.” Buttercup Creek was a nearby neighborhood where the vast majority of kids from our school lived, including Tim’s friend, Jay. They had spent the afternoon rollerblading. “You guys need to take cover.”

“Oka-ay…”

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “A bunch of people’s houses were blown away. Jay’s crying. His mom is freaking out.”

You had to take Tim’s words with a grain of salt. But sometimes there was a larger element of truth than others, and somehow the idea of Jay crying freaked me out. Jay was a year younger than me, but always seemed mature for his age. And when you’re fourteen, you think you’re basically a grown-up, so anyone your age also seems like a grown-up. Grown-ups and mature teens don’t usually cry or get scared.

I don’t remember what I said to Tim, or if I said anything.

“Just take cover,” he said. “Jay’s mom is going to bring me home when it’s safe to drive.”

I got off the phone and went to the formal living room where Asher was asleep on the sofa, trying to remain calm in spite of my steadily growing apprehensiveness.

“Wake up,” I told her. “There’s a tornado and we need to go in the bathroom.”

She stretched and yawned and was still annoyed at me over our earlier fight. “What are you talking about? The sun is shining.” She pointed at the windows and went quiet.

The sky was black—and still no rain.

We immediately began going through the motions of everything the we’d been told to do in this situation. I moved at a normal pace, not wanting to panic and upset my sister. I was the oldest right then and I couldn’t let her know I was scared.

Since we lived in a large, two-story house, gathering the necessities we’d need for such a situation took a few minutes. Our cat, Sophie, was usually hiding under one of the beds and Asher went looking for her. I went upstairs to my room to grab blankets and pillows. While I was up there, curiosity got the best of me and I needed to look out the windows.

The sky had changed. It wasn’t black anymore. At that moment, it had transformed into thick masses of light grey clouds, but there was that distinctive horizontal break. The clouds abruptly ended in a harsh, straight line and there was clear sky below it. I noticed the movement of the clouds. Slow. Strangely directionless.

There was otherwise no movement anywhere outside. No people. No birds. And the trees were eerily still.

house
Our childhood home. My window top right. My brother’s window top left.

My room faced the street in front of the house and my window was the largest. It was floor-to-ceiling, at least five feet wide, and topped with an elegant arch. Everything I needed to see was right out that window, but for some reason I was compelled to go look out Tim’s window, which also faced the street.

I dropped the blankets in the hall between our bedrooms, stood in front of his window, and I saw it.

The first thing I noticed was the trees were finally moving. But I quickly forgot the trees because I saw the debris in the air. Black pieces of unidentifiable debris. It looked like roof shingles and roof shingles shouldn’t be able to swirl around in the air like that.

I saw it in the top left quadrant of the window and it was right above our next door neighbor’s house. It appeared faint against the rest of the clouds, but it was distinguishable. Thin, narrow, wispy, but unmistakable. A funnel cloud drilling and spiraling in its descent from the sky.

And that was when I finally panicked.

“Touchdown!” I screamed, as if we were watching football. “Touchdown! Touchdown! Get in the bathroom!”

With blankets and pillows, Abby, Sophie, food and water for both of them, and a radio, we piled into the downstairs bathroom.

We climbed into the bathtub, covered ourselves with a blanket, and waited.

We didn’t turn on the radio. Not yet. We had to listen.

They say that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but we heard nothing like that. In fact, we heard nothing at all.

At some point Asher spoke up. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

We’d had a fight that afternoon and right then we were sitting in a bathtub waiting for our house to be blown away; possibly waiting to die, too.

We were just kids. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

“I love you, too.”

It was the single most anticlimactic moment of my life, because we continued to sit in total silence for a long time and nothing happened.

The silence lasted until the phone began ringing. The phone, which was not cordless and all the way across the house in the kitchen. The path from the bathroom to the kitchen was replete with large windows. There were so many windows in our house that we didn’t even have to turn the lights on during the day. I loved the windows and the natural light they provided, but right then all I could think of was the second I left the safety of the bathroom, I was vulnerable to a potential explosion of shattering glass.

But the phone was still ringing, so I had to go.

I left the bathroom first and Asher came with me.

In the windows, the sky was no longer black, but the same light grey it had been right before I saw the funnel cloud. There was still no rain.

I made it to the phone and my mom was on the other end.

“Are you girls okay?” Mom was a nurse, so she wasn’t the type to panic. She was always solid and calm, and right then was no different.

“We’re fine.” I was the type to stifle my feelings in situations that were too intense. “Nothing’s happening here.”

“I’m leaving the hospital. I’ll be there soon.”

Nineteen years later I would ask Mom about this particular phone call.

“It’s a wonder you all were not killed,” she told me. “This was before the time of cell phones, so I had to call before I left work. The hospital would not let the staff leave, but I managed to get out before they made that announcement. The traffic was crazy and I couldn’t get home fast enough.”

In my mind, all I could think of were my schoolmates and friends who lived in little Cedar Park; all of their parents, like mine, at work in Austin; all of those parents in their cars, clogging up the northbound lane of Highway 183 that lead from Austin into Cedar Park. Over the course of nineteen years, 183 was renovated into a big, wide highway with toll lanes. But in 1997 it was essentially just a three-lane suburban street, given to awful traffic jams during peak times. And late afternoon on May 27, 1997 was definitely a peak time.

After I hung up, Asher and I went outside expecting to see some kind of damage in our neighborhood. But there was nothing. Everything looked totally normal other than the gusts of wind.

The Tornado Warning wouldn’t expire until well into the evening, so we went back inside and moved the blankets to a large closet under the staircase. Abby and Sophie were growing agitated by being confined to a small space—especially being confined to a small space together—so we let them out.

The phone calls continued.

From Jay’s mom. “Are you girls okay? Make sure you stay inside. I’ll be there soon with Tim.”

From my best friend, Natasha. “Did you see a tornado? We didn’t see anything over here.”

Natasha lived in Leander, which was the next small town slightly north up 183 from Cedar Park.

“Oh yeah,” I said, feigning excitement over the whole thing; the only way to quell my fear and anxiety. “We’re having a party!”

“What? A party? Like a real party?”

“We built a clubhouse under the stairs. We’re having fun!”

She laughed. “Can I come over?”

For some crazy reason, her mom agreed to it.

From Tim. “I’m on my way. You won’t believe what Buttercup looks like right now.”

I felt a strange combination of horror and intrigue, and I decided I wanted to see it.

The rest of the evening is hazy in my memory. The weather morphed into something less strange and more normal. Natasha arrived at some point and so did Tim and my parents. We watched movies in the living room and managed to overhear Mom and Dad speaking in semi-hushed tones in the kitchen.

“The Albertson’s has a gaping hole right through the center of it,” Mom said. Albertson’s was our go-to grocery store. Like many things in Cedar Park—being the up-and-coming community that it was—it was brand new. The store managers had saved the lives of customers by pulling everyone into walk-in freezers. “Someone said it looks like a bomb went off.”

albertsons
Aftermath of tornado damage to Albertson’s grocery store in Cedar Park, Texas. Source: TEI Controls.

Nineteen years later, I look at the photos of the grocery store and am reminded of photos of the Pentagon on 9/11.

“The entire city of Jarrell was wiped away,” Dad said. “It was an F5.”

The movie Twister had come out almost exactly one year prior to this chaotic day, and we had all become well-versed in the Fujita scale as a result. An F5 tornado was classified as having wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. In the movie Twister, the F5 tornado is the one at the end that nearly kills Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

jarrell-tor-horizontal-vortex-tubes
F5 Jarrell Tornado. Source: Shawn.

In real life, the Jarrell F5 tornado killed 27 people and 300 cattle and horses. The city itself hadn’t been wiped away as my dad said, rather a subdivision had. The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and tracked across the ground for more than seven miles. The subdivision, Double Creek Estates, consisted of 38 homes and several mobile homes, and it was obliterated.

 

“It was literally wiped off the face of the earth,” the reporters would later tell us. “Nothing is left.”

 

jarrellfoundation
Foundation of a former home in Double Creek Estates in Jarrell, Texas. Source: Shawn.

Aerial damage from the Jarrell tornado was reviewed by researchers and it was considered to be the most violent tornado they’d ever seen. The homes in Double Creek were well-constructed and bolted to their foundations, but the storm left only the concrete slabs. The houses were pummeled into finely granulated fragments and scattered for sweeping distances across the Central Texas countryside. Entire families were killed, including the Igo family, who were beloved by and active in the Jarrell Baptist Church. Those who weren’t killed were sandblasted by the loose soil of the region, resulting in dozens of traumatic injuries. Rescuers said they had difficulty distinguishing the human remains from that of the animals.

igo-familyx-large
The Igo family. From left to right: John, 15; Joan, 45; Paul, 15; Larry, 46; and Audrey, 17. Source: Shawn.

The night of the storm, none of us knew the extent of the damage and loss of life. We only knew that, in our little subdivision in Cedar Park, we’d dodged one hell of a bullet.

Tragically, many of my school friends who lived in Buttercup Creek couldn’t say the same thing.

 

****

 

The next day was hot. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with high humidity, as was typical for late May in Central Texas. In spite of this, Asher, Natasha, and I decided to walk the five miles to Buttercup Creek.

Buttercup Creek was an older, established neighborhood, full of large, nice, well-built homes. Meticulously manicured lawns and expensive cars. Cedar Park, at the time, was yuppie-central and nice homes and cars were seemingly important status symbols. But after May 27, 1997, every resident of Cedar Park got a harrowing reality check.

Sticky and sweating, Asher, Natasha, and I made our way into the parameters of the neighborhood and everything seemed totally normal. Then we rounded a corner.

 

It was like walking into a movie. There was a slight bend in the street, so we watched a slow reveal of the carnage.

Tornadoes are Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette, and this street in Buttercup Creek was a terrifying example of that.

Untouched house; untouched house; house with broken windows; untouched house; a car in a driveway flattened by a tree; largely untouched house, the lawn littered with branches and leaves; untouched house; house missing half of its second story.

I stared at that one.

I was a couple hundred yards away and I could see inside someone’s bedroom. I didn’t know whose house it was, but it looked like a typical teenager’s bedroom, so I knew it was someone from my school. It wasn’t even particularly mangled. It looked like someone had carefully and meticulously sliced it in half with a jig saw. Posters still hung on the wall and the bed sat neatly in one corner.

Untouched house; tree branches in a yard; a stripped roof; a large tree on its side between two houses; a concrete slab with groupings of pipes sticking up out of the ground.

We all stopped.

I don’t remember any of us saying anything. We were probably all thinking the same thing.

A house used to be right there. That was where someone lived, and now it’s gone. How is that possible?

We were just kids. A lot of the people who lived on this street were just kids. And right then, staring at a street replete with varying degrees of destruction spliced with total normalcy, it seemed none of us could process what we were looking at.

Construction crews and electricians and other workers were milling about. I don’t remember seeing any of the families. I guessed that many of them had gone to relatives’ houses in the wake of damaged or destroyed homes.

And since we were just kids who couldn’t process the gravity of the sights, and since it was so hot, the three of us merely left in search of a nearby neighborhood swimming pool.

The Cedar Park tornado varied in intensity between F1 and F3, had traveled a total of nine miles and reached a maximum width of two-hundred fifty yards. One-hundred thirty-six homes in the neighborhood were damaged and there was one indirect fatality. The man had died of a heart attack while trying to wait out the storm in his truck. He was a family friend of my friend, Kelly. About a year after all of this, I spent the night at Kelly’s house and she showed me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, crying quietly over the man she’d known since toddlerhood. The first person she’d ever known to die.

We were just kids, most of us without our parents that day.  And on that day, we stared into the face of our own mortality. We saw firsthand how flippantly destructive Mother Nature can be. We came to grips with the idea that, sometimes, nobody can protect you. Because sometimes, it’s just you and your little sister sitting in a bathtub, in the dark, saying I love you and believing it’s the last thing you’ll ever say to anyone.

We were just kids, but on May 27, 1997, it seemed that we were forced to grow up.

 

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