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Camping in Texas' Storm of the Century

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

We thought it was just another rain storm, until the sky turned green + the tornado, lightning and rising waters arrived.

Austin Texas tornado story

I have a recurring nightmare of a tornado ripping through my house. This dream isn't totally unfounded, as I grew up in Austin, Texas where the threat of tornadoes was present, but not imminent -- we have a lot of hills.

But tornadoes ended their Austin hiatus Memorial Day Weekend, 2015, when we were camping at our property by the Pedernales River, outside of Austin. A Super El Nino had been raging for the month of May, slowly refilling the lakes without becoming severe, so we expected rain and not much more.

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Our first day camping was dry until dark clouds pushed in around 2:00 p.m. The rain began and the adults hunkered down under tarps with cards and boxes of wine, while the kids played soccer in a progressively expanding mud pit.

Toddler in a diaper playing in the mud during a Texas storm

After four hours of mud play I hosed Hudson off and put him to sleep in our tent. Then, the thunder and lightening began, and the sky turned green. My childhood fears reemerged and my intestines felt like they were strangling themselves. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that I'm a chronic over-reactor and that Austin doesn't have tornados. And then my phone blared, displaying the message, "Tornado Warning- Take cover now!" Well sh*t. We were far from any structures or drainage ditches, and sleeping in propped up fabric.

I ran to my parents in search of comfort and guidance. They looked tense but not panicked. My dad drove to the bridge (our only way back to town) and confirmed that it was flooded. No way out.

Luckily, said river was in a canyon and we were camping on the bluff, so flooding was not a pressing threat... but the tornado warning.

While we weighed our options lightening struck a tree thirty feet away and I sprinted across a water-coated field to my sleeping baby.

In the next five minutes the weather worsened and my now-frantic mom appeared at our tent, telling me to grab Hudson and get to a car. I grabbed Hudson and ran to a nearby Prius, which was not my finest moment, as there were ample trucks I could have chosen. I also had no idea where Eric was, and later found out he had sought safety in the port-a-potty.

Baby wrapped in a towel sleeping through a storm

The rain was so heavy, sky so dark, and thunder so deafening, our only glimpses of what was happening outside the car came when the lightning would strike, every three to four seconds. We had no way of knowing where the tornado was, but continual warnings on my phone assured me that is was still present.

After four hours in the car, the lightning waned and the warnings reduced to advisories. We returned to the tent and gratefully fell asleep.

At 3:00 a.m. I sat up, knowing something new was coming. Again, my phone started screaming with tornado warnings and my Doppler radar app showed a thick boomerang of blood red reaching from Mexico to Oklahoma.

This time, the lightning and moving water was too thick to attempt a dash to the car. As Eric and I lay listening to the increasing intensity of the rain, thunder, and lightning a new sound joined the party -- the sound of an airplane, or approaching train... a tornado.

Lightning strike during a tornado

As the rumble grew closer I placed my body over Hudson's, tucking the blankets tight around us, trying to convince myself that it would make a difference if the tornado ripped through the patch of cedar trees we were camping in.

That's when I had my first panic attack -- my heart began beating so hard and fast it felt like it was going to choke me. My sweat dripped onto my child, and I started shaking. For an hour, the roar, which easily cut through the constant thunder and cracks of lightning, seemed to come closer, then retreat, then reemerge.

I thought we were going to die. Even if an F-1 (the weakest) tornado hit us, our tent would do nothing to protect us from falling trees.

Stuck outside in a storm teeming with tornadoes (there were three in our area that night) was my worst fear realized. But unlike my fears from childhood, my child's life was now at risk as well. I can come to terms with my mortality, but not my kid's.

Gray funnel cloud

The red band of terror eventually passed, without a direct hit from a tornado. While the twisters only caused minor damage, the flooding resulted in tragedy, as the nearby rivers rose 20 feet in one hour, resulting in a wall of water that peaked at 45 feet around 3am. Survivors reported a black tidal wave slamming into homes, forcing them onto their roofs, praying for rescue. The flood swept homes off their foundations, and claimed 14 lives.

One home that was carried down river contained a family of four. The parents held their young children as they surrendered to the unthinkable. When the house hit a bridge, they were ripped away from one another and the father was sucked out a window.

Only the father survived.

My heart still aches for this family. I can't imagine what they went through. I couldn't stop thinking about them. I couldn't stop thinking about how surrender is wholly unnatural for parents, especially when it comes to our kids. Our conditioning to fix, to do, to heal, to protect, is threatened by situations that demand a forfeit of control. When faced with a problem, specifically concerning our children, we feel an unbearable desire to shelter them. “There must be something to do,” we think, but that night taught me the painful lesson that sometimes there is nothing we can do.


The next day was still and clear, but with the river still raging we couldn't leave.

After a day of waiting, we were able to drive back to Austin as we watched a growing blob of hot pink on the radar roll towards our camp. From the safety of my uncle's house we watched the newscaster report "a large and extremely dangerous" tornado ripping through the area we had just left. An unheard of seven tornadoes were spotted in Austin that day, with twelve feet of moving water rolling through downtown.

While we're still crazy enough to continue the tradition of camping on our Central Texas property every Memorial Day Weekend, you can be sure we keep a close eye on the radar and pull up stakes long before we get caught in another ferocious display by Mother Nature.


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