Oklahoma family rides out tornado in closet as house is destroyed

By Michael Kinney

Colson Berryhill thought he was prepared. After living in Norman (OK.) for two decades, the 25-year-old had witnessed the aftereffects of his share of tornadoes, so he thought he knew what to expect.

However, that is not the case anymore. After Berryhill and his family found themselves crouched down in a closet as a tornado ripped through their house Sunday, he now knows better.

“They always say it’s severe, but it never hits me. I never thought it would happen to me,” Berryhill said. “I’m, I’m going to have a newfound respect for storms for the rest of my life. And we’re going to, we’re going to have a storm shelter in our house now.”

In total, the National Weather Service received 7 preliminary reports of tornados in Oklahoma. That is a new record for the entire month of February.

The EF-2 level tornadoes hit in or near towns such as Mustang, Hollis, Shawnee, Tuttle and Minco. But some of the most severe damage appears to have been done in Norman. That includes 12 people hospitalized from the storms.

Berryhill, his wife Madeline, and their 1-year-old baby were at their east-side Norman home when they first heard something was coming.

“We were in the house as the weather was coming in. We’ve been through storms before, so I didn’t really think too much of it. And we were kind of ready. I was actually going to take a shower and just like get ready for bed.”

Even though the wind was picking up outside, it wasn’t until Berryhill got a call from his father that he started to get concerned.

“My dad, who lives in Goldsby, called me and he said ‘something just came through. We had like 100 mph winds. You guys have like one or two minutes you need to take shelter,” Berryhill recalled.  “I walked across the house, I grabbed the little toddler mattress and I put my wife and child in the closet and then I heard the wind pick up. I have two dogs and they’re right there. I threw my dogs in the closet and then I got in.”

Berryhill could only wait and listen at that point. He said he heard their bathroom window shatter and then his ears popped.  At the same time, he was trying to shut the closet door and lock it even as the winds pushed back against him.

“I heard the front window shatter and I heard a bang,” Berryhill said. “I texted my dad and said we just lost our front window, but we’re okay.”

Yet, Berryhill thought his family was still in danger.

“I knew the glass was broken, so I was like, ‘okay, we need to move to the west side of the house,’” Berryhill said. “We have a guest bathroom and said let’s try and get in there. I opened the door, which kept slamming due to the wind, and put on my Carhartt jacket because I was like that’ll protect my body. I walk out into the living room and saw we have no roof.”

According to Berryhill, his family and their dogs sheltered in the guest bathroom until the storm blew over. He believes the tornado itself lasted just a couple of minutes, but the storm may have been close to 10 minutes.

The entire time Berryhill was hunkered down with a child’s mattress over his body, all he could think about was the safety and well-being of his family.

“I had heard stories of tornadoes and what they’re like, so what I was thinking of was this story of a teacher who had her kids in an interior bathroom,” Berryhill said. “And she told the story of her bracing up against this big metal door and the wind just tore off its hinges and threw it across the room. And I was I’m sitting there behind this little interior closet door and I’m pushing a mattress up against this. I just was praying please let them be okay. Because I knew at that point, I’d kind of done what I could to protect my family. It was in God’s hands. I was at the mercy of whatever happened with the storm.”

After the storm had passed, Berryhill was able to see just how much damage had been done. The roof on the side and most of the back of the house was completely blown away while there was a deep gash on the front.

The furniture and personal belongings were soaking wet and covered with asbestos. Before any appraisers or insurance agents came out he knew his home was going to have to be broken down and rebuilt. The family will have to find temporary housing for a while.

The two houses right behind Berryhill got hit just as hard if not worse. One completely collapsed in on itself. 

“These three houses on this street here on Old Central, I think they’re probably the three worst ones,” Berryhill said. “It’s like the storm touched down right in my backyard and then went about 300 feet and then picked right back up. It’s crazy.”

Alongside moving their belongings out of the house and talking to insurance agents and appraisers, Berryhill has been some of his time helping his neighbors. That includes making sure his elderly neighbor doesn’t fall prey to suspect roofing companies that have invaded the neighborhood since the storm left.

Yet, Berryhill still counted himself as lucky. His family survived a close encounter with a tornado. Two days later he was still unable to come to terms with that fact.

You kind of go through this, you just have to focus on one next thing and then every once in a while, you just kind of sit and you start thinking about the big picture,” Berryhill said. “And the big picture is that something catastrophic just happened to me and I haven’t processed that emotionally. I can feel that intellectually I’m okay. I kind of know the next thing to do. But I can feel that there’s stress happening inside my body that I haven’t had time to process yet. So, it comes in waves. Things hit me and realizing this is a big thing that just happened in my life.”

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Photos: Michael Kinney

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