HOUSTON—Let me tell you a story about a woman who made a right decision in a crisis.
One stormy day twenty years ago, tornadoes ripped through a number of neighborhoods around Houston. Unlike Oklahoma and North Texas, we don’t see many tornadoes touching down in our area, and those that do usually cause little or no damage.
So what happened to the Hendee’s house was especially surprising.
Nowadays, Edd Hendee’s name is kind of famous around Houston, mainly as a conservative talk show host. But back in November 1992, he and his wife Nina were known mainly as the owners of the Taste of Texas restaurant, maybe the best steakhouse in the city. I’d never met either of them.
So when we rolled into the Katy neighborhood where they lived, I saw a young-looking suburban couple with their three children walking around the wreckage a twister had wrought on their home. The windows of their two-story house had blown out, the garage door had imploded and much of their roof had been ripped away.
What struck me, though, was the family’s behavior. They were not only very friendly—only later did I learn that’s just the way they are—but they were also almost giddy.
Edd actually laughed as he showed me how a two-by-four piece of wood had sliced through the hood of one of his cars and pierced into the metal block. Nina was as excitable as a child on a sugar rush. At one point, I touched Edd on the arm and asked, “Are you okay?”
So today, when I visited Nina at their steakhouse, I couldn’t help mentioning that she was smiling the day I met her, even though she had almost died when her home was destroyed.
“It’s just the joy of being alive when, by all rights, you shouldn’t be,” she remembered. “When you survive something that catastrophic, just the realization you’re still alive is pretty stunning—and joyful. So everyone was smiling.”
Edd was away from home that day, coaching a soccer game. Nina had stayed at the house along with their 15-year-old son and one of his friends, getting ready for a crowd of young soccer players expected to join them for a post-game party.
Nina stepped out into the garage to dump some trash into a garbage can. Then she looked outside.
“The shades were up in the garage,” she recalls. “The tornado was coming up my driveway.
“I saw a pine tree flying across the driveway,” she said. “And I took off running, went in the house, screamed ‘tornado’ for the children, and we all took off running for the closet.”
She estimated they had ten to fifteen seconds to save themselves. They scrambled into a closet beneath the staircase. As their home shook around them, Nina grabbed the door handle.
“I was trying to pull the door of the closet closed and the tornado was ripping the door off at the same time,” she remembered. “And I was not physically strong enough to pull the door closed.”
The door was ripped out of her hands.
“The house exploded,” she said. “The roof was ripped off. The doors were ripped off the house.”
Shattering shards of glass flew through the air, but the closet protected Nina and the two boys from injury. Edd later stood in the living room and couldn’t help noticing that, amid the destruction, a piece of art depicting a couple of angels escaped undamaged.
“The kids are all OK,” he said that afternoon. “And my wife. And the neighbors. And all our friends.”
I’ve visited the Hendees many times since then, mainly when I’m craving a good steak. Edd and I occasionally talk about politics and he’s helped me develop a few stories. Nina has always greeted me with a hug.
So when I visited with Nina today, sitting at a table in their restaurant 21 years after the twister, I thought I pretty much knew the whole story. Then she told me an interesting detail I’d never heard before.
“Our tornado was on a Saturday,” she said. “But on Thursday, the sky had turned green. And it was frightening. So I said, ‘OK, kids, if we ever have severe weather, you would get in the closet under the staircase. That’s the safest spot.’”
“We actually had a tornado drill two days before the tornado,” she remembered.
So as you look at the pictures of the devastation in Oklahoma, take some advice from a tornado survivor: Make a plan.
The Hendees told their children if they were separated during a disaster in their home—a fire, a gas leak, anything—they should all run outside and touch the mailbox. In case of a tornado, the closet would be their refuge.
“I’m a planner,” she said. “And I was really glad we had a plan that day.”