On March 3rd, no one was killed — or even seriously injured — when a devastating tornado ripped through the Eufaula airport.
Were they lucky? That’s not the way one Eufaula businesswoman sees it.
“People say lucky. I say blessed,” says Sam DeFee. “Because it was too close for there not to be a reason we survived it.”
Sam DeFee owns a popular Eufaula restaurant, Sam’s Kitchen and Grill, that is located adjacent to Weedon Field, the city’s airport on U.S. Highway 431 north of town.
She draws large crowds for Sunday lunch. On March 3, 2019, the dinner crowd was gone. DeFee and six staff members remained.
The weather turned bad and she got a call telling her there was tornado was in the neighborhood.
“As I got off the phone, I’m looking outside and I couldn’t see anything,” she said recently. “Everything was white. It was all whited out. Just like somebody dropped a sheet over the window.”
She got a headcount and they took cover in an external cooler before ending up next to a concrete wall in the middle dining room.
“And we just got on our knees in front of the brick wall,” she said. “At this point, I think everything was pretty much over by then.”
She was not prepared for what she saw in the aftermath. The Eufaula airport, a popular refueling and plane storage spot, was destroyed. Hangars were nothing more than mangled metal. Airplanes were flipped around like they were toys.
“You hear about it. You talk about it,” DeFee said. “And you hear other people say how devastating it is. You always think it’s not going to happen to us. It’s not going to be near us. Then you walk out and see it visually, and it’s just unreal — just unreal.”
The final total was $70 million in property damage in Eufaula. Dozens of planes, including a $30 million jet, were total losses. The city’s northside fire station was destroyed, with two firefighters huddled in a tub inside the bathroom.
Mayor Jack Tibbs was one of the first on the scene. A year later, he can’t believe how there could be such good fortune in such destruction.
The tornado missed a neighborhood just west of the airport.
“It released its wrath right here on the airport when it got here,” Tibbs said. “We had seven people here. Two in the fire station … We were very blessed.”
The mayor says that everything that was destroyed can be replaced.
“We didn’t lose anybody or have any bad injuries, so we were just very blessed,” he said. “Not like our neighbors to the north.”
Those neighbors Tibbs is talking about lived in Beauregard, where 23 lives were loss from a tornado that part of the same weather system.
March 3rd left a mark on DeFee and others who survived it.
“I remember dropping my head almost all the way to my knees. … and being scared,” she said. “… We could have been Beauregard. We could have been Beauregard. Absolutely.”