UPDATE: Tornado that hit Van was EF3

Published on Monday, 11 May 2015 20:07 - Written by KENNETH DEAN, kdean@tylerpaper.com

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VAN — Cleanup operations continue today as Van residents recover from the EF-3 tornado that hit the town Sunday night, killing two people and injuring 47 others. 

Husband and wife, David, 60, and Brenda Tapley, 62, died in the storm. The couple retired to Van from Garland, where David Tapley worked 32 years with the Garland Police Department, retiring as a detective, according Van Zandt County Pct. 4 Constable Pat Jordan. 

David Tapley was a realtor in Van. The couple attended Van United Methodist Church, where David served as council chairman and was a certified lay minister for the denomination, and Brenda was a former church secretary, according reports from the United Methodist News Service. 

Both David and Brenda were described as animal lovers and said to be very involved in local animal rescue groups. 

Van Zandt County Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator Chuck Allen said the storm damaged close to 100 homes, many of which were destroyed. The Van Independent School District also suffered major damage at the administration building and the elementary and intermediate schools. 

Allen said the tornado, rated an F3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale by the National Weather Service, struck the city of Van about 8:45 p.m. Sunday. Although warning sirens sounded, residents had limited time to react.

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"This storm developed rather quickly, but I do not know exactly how much time residents had after the sirens sounded. I do know that it saved lives," Allen said. 

Tornadoes are rated on the scale from F0 to F5, the highest. National Weather Service officials said the Van tornado produced wind speeds between 136 and 165 mph.

As emergency responders rushed to the city to assist those affected, a second storm began bearing down on the city. 

"After the first tornado hit, rescuers were deployed, but had to be called back due to the arrival of the second storm. We had to take shelter to ensure our safety at that time," Allen said.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

As the day broke over the city Monday morning, residents stumbled down debris-filled streets, surveying the damage and sharing stories of survival. 

Nathan Mims said he was home when the storm hit and took what little cover he could with the short notice. 

"It was horrifying and quick. I pulled the hideaway couch over me and my two dogs," he said. "The couch got pulled off of me, and I got some scrapes and bruises, but I wound up walking out and going to my next door neighbors who were buried under their house."

Clinton Locke was driving in front of the Van Independent School District administration building when his car was thrown by the storm. 

"It happened too quick to really be scared. I heard people yelling from their house. We were pulling people out from their houses," Locke said. 

A bruised and battered Jane Burns spoke of how she and five of her family members were in her mobile home less than a mile from town when the tornado picked up the home and sent it crashing to the ground. 

"My son has a broken vertebra in his back and my soon- to-be daughter-in-law has two broken vertebrae. We walked from here all the way to town barefooted. We couldn't find our shoes," she said.  "All we can do now is pick up the pieces," she said.

Resident after resident shared similar stories Monday afternoon, glad they suffered only minor injuries. However, two people were said to be in critical condition in a Tyler hospital. 

DAMAGE ESTIMATES

Although Allen said it is too early to give any damage estimates, Gov. Greg Abbott's office on Monday declared the county a disaster area.

Abbott signed the order late Monday for Van Zandt County and several other Texas counties suffering damage from weekend storms, including Bosque, Clay, Denton, Eastland, Gaines and Montague. 

“Severe storms continue to impact areas across the state of Texas, and I strongly urge everyone to take all possible precautions to ensure their safety. Declaring a state of disaster in these counties will enable Texas to activate state resources to help affected communities as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Gov. Abbott said in a prepared statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost their lives, their families and all of our affected communities. I want to thank the first responders who are working tirelessly to provide shelter, care and resources to impacted areas.”

DISASTER ZONE

Van Zandt County officials are asking East Texas residents to avoid traveling to Van and other affected areas, saying an influx of people was hindering the search and rescue efforts, as well as the work of utility workers trying to restore power to the area. 

"Please stay out of the area if you do not live in the area," Van Mayor Dean Stone said during an afternoon news conference. 

Smith County Fire Marshal Jay Brooks said Smith County Sheriff's SWAT team, along with other officers including game wardens and state police, are in the area to keep people out and to ensure no looting takes place. 

Mayor Stone said emergency lighting would be placed around the city so emergency crews can work at night. 

Stone and others said they would be rebuilding as soon as possible.

"Van is a strong community. We will rebuild," Van Zandt County Judge Don Kirkpatrick said.  

Twitter: @KenDeanofTyler