Stillwater News Press

April 20, 2012

Woodward woman twice lives through deadly tornadoes


WOODWARD, Okla. — Before Wilma Nelson went to bed last Saturday, she had everything ready in case of a bad storm.

Arranged in a walk-in closet in her home of 47 years was a chest filled with nonperishable food, bottled water, Kleenex, toilet paper, scissors, pliers, a can opener, a whistle, three flashlights and extra batteries. Her cellphone and glasses were on a bedside table, and Sugar, a beige-spotted cocker spaniel, was nearby.

The tough, tiny 87-year-old was half-awake, listening to a weather radio when a tornado was spotted. It was five to seven miles away from Woodward and moving fast.

Nelson had survived alone before. She hid under a table during Oklahoma’s deadliest tornado that struck April 9, 1947— which killed 116 people in Oklahoma alone and influenced the creation of the tornado watch and warning program in 1953.

So when the sirens sounded this time, Nelson got out of bed in her pajamas and dashed into the closet, not bothering to put on her robe and house shoes. She tried to convince Sugar to come with her, but the dog went in another direction.

“I barely got the door shut when it hit,” she said.

It was as if a bomb went off, Nelson said, and she felt pain in her ears. A wall panel fell on her head, and she could see the sky and feel the air above her on Robin Drive.

“I just tried to stay as calm as I could,” she said. Afterward, as neighbors called for “Ms. Wilma,” she shined one of the flashlights and they helped her out of the closet.

“I’m just a tough old coot,” she said. “I’m just pretty tough. I’ve just had to learn to be strong. If life deals you lemons you make lemonade, that’s my philosophy, and you do whatever you have to do and you take it on the chin ... and if good things come you rejoice.”

Nelson, the youngest of nine, grew up in Laverne. She could not afford college, so she went to work at the county treasurer’s office and at the courthouse. She moved to Woodward to work as a bookkeeper, and met her husband there.

On the night of the 1947 storm, she was 23 years old and living on Oak Avenue in a duplex. Her roommate was gone and she was reading in bed. She could see a menacing cloud in the west, and worried about a possible hailstorm.

“Back then, we did not have communications,” she said. “We didn’t even know it was coming.”

It struck Woodward at 8:42 p.m., and destroyed more than 100 city blocks and more than 1,000 homes and businesses, according the National Weather Service. The tornado touched down near Canadian, Texas, traveled for 100 miles, and was nearly two miles wide. In addition to the deaths in Oklahoma, it also killed 69 in Texas.

Last week’s tornado was deadly, killing six in Woodward. After the storm, The New York Times published an article about Nelson.

Speaking by phone from an assisted living facility where she has now moved, Nelson happily talked about the newspaper’s reporter, Manny Fernandez. A couple of people emailed her the article, and television stations have asked to interview her.

Nelson lost her home, where she kept flowerbeds of mums, peonies, petunias and hydrangeas. She said her back hurts, but she is “pretty good for the shape I’m in.” She recovered all her photo albums and Sugar survived.

Nelson’s advice: “Get you a weather radio, because it saved my life.”