Rob Voss, a North Bend native and 1989 NBC graduate, digs through the remains of his home.
Former Bender survives Moore horror
by Nathan Arneal
The terror really only lasted a matter of seconds.
But in the pitch dark of a 4-by-8 shelter dug into the ground below his parents’ garage, it seemed longer to Rob Voss. Curled up on the floor of the shelter, he could do nothing but wait and listen. The roar outside grew louder and louder as the tornado bore down on him. The ground began to shake, like a car sitting too close to the railroad crossing as a freight train thunders past. He could hear flying debris crash into the sides of the garage and house.
Then, it was over. The sound faded. He slid back the door to the shelter to find the garage still intact. With the power out he had to pry open the garage door to get a glimpse outside.
Shattered two-by-fours and insulation were strewn about. The windows of the house across the street were shattered. Shingles were torn off. Holes dotted the roof.
Then he looked down the street to his own house.
A clock that once sat in his son’s bathroom would later be salvaged from the wreckage. It recorded the moment as 3:28.
Back in North Bend, Rob’s mother Dixie Voss received a phone call from her daughter Kendra at 2:45.
“You better turn on The Weather Channel,” Kendra Voss told her mother.
Dixie flipped on the television to find herself watching live coverage of a tornado bearing down on Moore, Oklahoma. Just six months earlier, Dixie and Don Voss had closed on a house in Moore, one they planned on using while visiting Rob’s family, which lived just three blocks away.
Dixie and Don could do nothing but watch helplessly as the tornado moved into familiar territory.
“When it went over the theater and the hospital we knew exactly where that was,” Dixie Voss said. “They kept giving landmarks. It went over the railroad track and we said ‘Oh, no.’”
Rob had sent a text to Kendra, so the Nebraska Vosses knew he was seeking protection in the storm shelter under their garage. Most houses in Oklahoma don’t have basements since the local soil type makes them prohibitively expensive. Some houses have a prefabricated metal shelter buried below them. Don and Dixie’s new house had one such shelter accessible through the floor of its garage. They knew Rob should be safe there, but that didn’t make it any easier to watch on TV.
“We’re sitting there trying not panic,” Dixie said. “When they gave the next update, I said, ‘It got either our house or their house or both houses.’”
Shortly before 5 p.m., they received a text from Rob's wife Jennifer saying she was going to try to head home from Norman. When she had finally made contact with Rob, she sent another text to Nebraska:
“All we have is each other.”
Rob Voss, a 1989 graduate of North Bend Central, has been calling Moore, Oklahoma, home for 10 years now. While getting an occupational therapy degree from Creighton University, he did a clinical rotation in Oklahoma City. Upon graduation, he was offered a job there.
Moore sits on the south edge of the Oklahoma City metro area, between the capital city and Norman, where Voss’s wife Jennifer works.
Oklahoma is right in the heart of tornado alley, with the area around Oklahoma City seeing more twisters than any other region in the country. A tornado struck Moore the first year Voss lived there, but it didn’t get close to his neighborhood.
Last Sunday, May 19, was a violent day, with tornadoes striking Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa. At least four touched down in the Oklahoma City vicinity.
The next day, Monday, Voss was at work and central Oklahoma was again under a tornado watch. His wife was at work in Norman, where their 3-year-old son, Samuel, was in day care.
He left work about 2 p.m. and stopped to run some errands on his way home. In one store, he heard the storms were getting worse and there were possible tornadoes developing to the west. Voss quickly left the store.
Shortly after arriving home, he decided to seek shelter. With no basement or storm shelter of his own, he crossed the three blocks to his parents’ vacation house, which did have a shelter. It was just a precaution, he thought.
By the time he got there, the situation called for more than precaution.
“It was already getting very bad,” Voss said, “and they were saying it was going to get really, really, really bad, really strong. They were saying to take shelter now, for the whole city of Moore. When they say that down here, they’re pretty serious about it.”
Within 20 minutes crawling into the shelter, Voss knew he was in the midst of a tornado. Sirens were going off. The electricity went out. The ground shook. The sound of violence grew closer.
“You could feel it, but the sound... it was strange,” Voss said. “It’s hard to even describe. It sounded more like a jet engine with a freight train all mixed together. You could literally hear the sound getting stronger so you knew it was getting closer. It was pretty close to the house. You could hear the debris hitting it. You could hear it churning and churning things up.”
Cowering on the floor of the shelter, alone in the dark, he was helpless.
“I was scared,” he said. “I was underground. There was no way to see. The sound kept getting louder and louder. I didn’t know if it was going to hit Mom and Dad’s house or if it wasn’t.”
Finally the crescendo subsided and the storm moved on.
His parents’ house was battered but still standing. Just three blocks away, his own house wasn’t so lucky.
“As I climbed up out of the cellar, I turned and looked down the street to where our house is, and I could see that all the houses on that street were just gone,” Voss said. “They were just a pile of rubble. I knew with relative certainty that ours was gone too.”
Voss slowly worked his way towards home, checking on neighbors along the way. Many people were away at work. Of the 10 or 12 houses on his street, about a third of them have a tornado shelter. Most people who don’t have their own shelters have a deal to use their neighbors’ if the need arises.
Voss watched as his neighbors, an elderly couple, were pulled from the wreckage of their house. Without a tornado shelter, they had sought protection in a closet. Their house was leveled. Rescuers pulled them out of a pile of rubble 20 feet from where the closet originally stood. Amazingly, they survived with only a few broken bones and scrapes to show for it.
Finally, Voss rounded the corner near his own house.
|Voss's house after the tornado.
“I looked at the top of the hill–our house is at the top of the hill–and I could see nothing,” he said. “I knew that our house was completely gone.”
Despite the destruction around him, the worst part of those early moments afterward was the lack of communication. With no cell reception, Voss had no way of letting his wife know he was still alive and well.
“That was thee worst part,” Voss said, “not being able to tell them I was OK. I know for (Jennifer) it was really hard not knowing for sure if I was OK.”
He tried to call his wife 12 times without getting through. Finally, after about 45 minutes, his cell phone snapped back to life. He had 20 text messages asking if he was OK. At last he was able to contact his wife, who in turn let his Nebraska family know that he was well.
With roads clogged with debris, Jennifer couldn’t get home that evening. A nurse who lived nearby gave Rob a ride to an intersection about three miles away that Jennifer could access. That night they stayed at a friend’s house. The next day, their insurance company set them up in a hotel.
Around 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dixie and Don Voss and daughter Kendra left North Bend for Moore. They arrived at noon on Tuesday in a pouring rain. They were not allowed to see their house that day, but on Wednesday the Vosses were allowed to dig through the rubble of Rob’s home. They went in with a goal of finding wedding and baby picture albums, a file cabinet containing important papers and the hard drive to their computer. They were able to final all three.
“It’s mostly a loss,” Rob Voss said, “but we did find the important things, and they were mostly intact.”
The volunteers began pouring in from all over. Voss talked to one group that drove 32 hours to help.
“We’ve had friends of friends, people that don’t even know us, that are willing to physically help us out if needed,” he said. “There are people we hardly know helping us to clean clothes and things like that.”
When the insurance company says it is OK, Voss’s house will be bulldozed into the street, where the city then will cart off the rubble. The family hopes to move into a rental house in Norman this week. Voss said he is not sure if they will rebuild on the same lot or somewhere else.
Dixie and Don’s house is still upright, but it received some major damage, including sizable holes in the roof. They have been in contact with a contractor and once the house is livable again, Rob and his family will move in until they have a more permanent solution. For now, Don and Dixie’s house is a base of operation for the Vosses, with anything salvaged from Rob’s house being stored in the garage.
Dixie Voss said having a house so close to Rob’s has been a blessing.
“The house has paid for itself,” she said. “It saved Rob’s life. Now they have a safe place they can go and take care of some of these things. For a lot of people down there they have nothing. I mean nothing.”
Assistance has been readily available. Volunteers have been walking the streets handing out water, sandwiches, gloves, hard hats, sunscreen and just about anything else workers needed.
“People have been coming by every 15 minutes: ‘Do you need an apple? Do you need water? Can we give you a hug?’” Dixie Voss said. “It’s just been phenomenal the love that’s been poured out to us down there.”
Kendra Voss said her week in Moore left a lasting impression.
“The help, the love, the compassion, the spirit of giving has been beyond overwhelming,” she said. “The core of this spirit has been Oklahomans, but it has branched out to all corners of America. This is about a lot of people who lost their lives and homes, but the spirit of service has been the true hero. That is what I am taking away from my experience in Moore.”
Just as Don, Dixie and Kendra were preparing head back home to North Bend Sunday, another volunteer stopped by to pitch in, Univeristy of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops. He greeted the Vosses with a Sooner visor and a couple of Wal-Mart gift cards. Then he and a couple of OU football players began helping dig through the wreckage of Rob Voss’s home.
The final numbers are devastating. Peak winds of more than 200 mph put the storm in the EF5 category, the most powerful classification of tornado. It cut a swath 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide through Moore and Oklahoma City, destroying some 2,400 homes. At least 237 people were injured and 24 killed.
It was a traumatic event, no doubt, but Rob Voss says it is one his family will survive with heads held high.
“Honestly, the benefit of having an experience like this is that it helps put into perspective that material things really don’t matter,” he said. “After the tornado all I was really worried about and all my family was really worried about was just being together and being safe.”
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