ENID, Okla. —
Let’s talk about the weather.
For many people, weather might be a dull go-to topic when a conversation is dying, but in Oklahoma weather is unpredictable, thrilling and often dangerous. It is definitely something to talk about.
There may be a certain thrill in storm spotting, but trained storm spotters and emergency personnel might say otherwise. Even for a professional, storm spotting can be very dangerous and, just when you think the worst is over, the storm has other thoughts.
Three of the Enid area's trained professionals know the danger of Oklahoma’s storms and have a few stories to share when the topic of weather comes up.
When a tornado struck the town of Carrier in 1999, Garfield County Emergency Management Director Mike Honigsberg was keeping track of the storm from right behind it.
“I got caught in the rear-flanking downdraft and it took me off the road,” said Honigsberg.
Even thought Honigsberg was behind, not in, the tornadic storm, the dangers were still very real.
“It caught me and threw me sideways,” said Honigsberg. “It got me so quick.”
Honigsberg said the experience changed him.
“That’s when I really started preaching hard to our people. It’s not a game out there. Mother Nature can kill you,” said Honigsberg.
It is not possible to completely predict a storm’s pathway, a fact Honigsberg said he learned early on in his career.
“I was also storm spotting when I was going to college up in Alva,” said Honigsberg. “I was with the ambulance service and that was part of our training.”
The early experience with seasoned storm spotters taught Honigsberg the important lesson of knowing his surroundings.
“There were several times when I was in college where we kind of ended up at the wrong place at a dead-end road,” said Honigsberg. “You have to make sure you have an escape route.”
Honigsberg said the realization when something like that happens is unforgettable.
“You realize you just made a mistake that might cost you your life,” he said.
Fortunately for Honigsberg, he has made it through the close calls and he has been the emergency management director for nearly 18 years.
We do live in Tornado Alley, but tornadoes aren’t the only type of threatening weather trained storm spotters watch for. Clarence Maly, Waukomis fire chief, remembers a specific incident with severe weather of a different nature.
“The one I remember was when Lahoma and Drummond got hit by the hail storm,” said Maly of the 1994 event.
This particular thunderstorm had very strong winds and unloaded a large amount of hail over the Lahoma and Drummond areas.
“It was like somebody dropped a bomb,” said Maly. “No windows, no doors. It beat those houses to pieces.”
Maly also remembers the tornado that hit Carrier and, like Honigsberg, he experienced the wrath a storm can unleash even after the tornado threat is gone.
Maly was involved in the search and rescue effort after the tornado had passed.
“We get to town and a lot of power lines are down,” said Maly. “So we were doing on-foot door-to-door rescues.”
Maly said he and his team found an elderly woman who was trapped in her storm cellar after her house had been shifted off its foundation. To get her to an ambulance they had to carry her, because no vehicle could get through the streets.
“We had to carry her about half a mile. We were carrying her and then a hail storm with hail the size of golf balls hit,” said Maly.
The team quickly sought cover in a nearby damaged home and waited out the hail storm before taking the woman the remainder of the distance to the ambulance.
Maly and his team also were storm spotting a few years ago when they were able to witness a tornado near Bison and follow it. That tornado left behind very little damage.
“Garfield County is pretty fortunate. We’ve got a pretty good crew,” said Maly. “I can make a phone call and have a 25-man team ready to go wherever you want in about 20 minutes.”
A large number of the emergency responders in Garfield County are volunteers.
David Christy served as emergency management director of Waukomis for 32 years and served 27 years as firefighter, officer and EMT on Waukomis Fire and Rescue. He retired in 2007.
Christy shared many storm-related experiences with Maly, but each of them remembers different key parts of the same experiences.
“The most harrowing severe weather-spotting incident I remember was when the towns of Lahoma and Drummond were hit by a severe thunderstorm that had extremely high winds and an unbelievable amount of hail,” said Christy.
Christy and another Waukomis firefighter, Dale Hornberger, were storm spotting west of Waukomis near Turkey Creek when they spotted the large storm.
“We watched as this massive, greenish-black cloud just seemed to sit down on the town of Drummond and stay there,” said Christy. “As the storm moved east toward Waukomis, we saw rain coming almost horizontal to the ground and then kind of going back up in the air before it hit the ground. We decided right then and there to get the heck out of there and headed back to the fire station.”
Christy said it wasn’t long until they got a call for assistance from Drummond.
“We had a heck of a time getting to Drummond since lines and power poles were down on the Drummond road,” said Christy. The team had to navigate their way over county roads to get to Drummond.
“When we finally (got there) we found a lot of hail and wind damage, with hail piled two and three feet deep hours after the storm had passed,” said Christy. “I’ll never forget looking into the blown-out windows of a trailer on the north end of town and seeing all the hail damage on the inside walls.”
Of all Christy’s storm memories, he said the most unforgettable was the infamous May 3, 1999, tornado outbreak.
“After we got word that Dover had been hit by a large tornado, Chief Clarence Maly began getting some strike teams together to send firefighters to Dover and possibly to Mulhall after it was hit,” said Christy, who was on the Waukomis heavy-rescue truck that went to Dover, along with a truck from the Enid Fire Department, for search and rescue.
“My most vivid memory of that night was the darkness because all the electricity was out in the town and, even though we had powerful flashlights and spotlights on our rescue truck, the light just seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness and debris,” said Christy.
There was one fatality discovered in Dover that night.
“That was a very long night for a lot of firefighters,” said Christy.
Maly also said he has many memories from that night. One of those memories was finding a tractor-trailer on top of a minivan.
When they approached, Maly said they saw baby tennis shoes sticking out of the wreckage.
“Come to find out it was a doll,” said Maly. “But it gets your blood pressure up.”
When severe weather hits, it is best to stay inside and take the necessary precautions. Storm spotting is something that sounds thrilling but it is hard enough to predict the path of a tornado and even harder to predict the other life-threatening possibilities a storm brings.
“If you don’t know what you're doing, you should never go out spotting,” said Honigsberg.
Honigsberg stressed that only certified, experienced storm spotters should be out tracking the severe weather because the thrill of seeing or photographing the power that can lurk in the clouds is not worth anyone’s life.
“It takes a lot of experience, and even then you can be surprised,” said Honigsberg.
Garfield County has a large force of certified personnel to watch storms and warn its citizens.
“All the rural fire departments, the sheriff’s office, some of the police, they are the eyes and arms of the field,” said Honigsberg. “A spotter is an observer. They go out to a specific place. They are observing to see what’s going on and radioing in.”
“So many people watch all the shows on TV and say, ‘Oh, I want to go do that,’” said Honigsberg. “I don’t want anyone to get killed. You just never want to get in that position. Without the proper training it is a lot easier to get into that position (of danger).”
Honigsberg also said he believes it is important for everyone to attend a community storm spotter class. Attending the class does not certify anyone to officially storm-spot, but it educates people to better understand storm systems and teaches them to be better prepared in the event of Oklahoma weather striking hard.