East Texans pick up the pieces after tornado terror

Published on Monday, 1 May 2017 01:24 - Written by JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS, news@tylerpaper.com

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CANTON - A monster of a storm that fed off converging weather systems Saturday to rip a deadly course through East Texas may be one for the record books, officials said a day later.

The powerful weather system is believed to have spawned at least four tornadoes as it tore through several counties including Van Zandt, Henderson and Rains, wiping away homes, rattling nerves and sending people scurrying for their lives.

Four people are confirmed dead, six remain hospitalized, including two in critical condition, and authorities still are working to account for all those caught up in the trajectory of the storm that could possibly have stretched an unprecedented 50 miles on the ground.

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to the disaster by making a personal visit to Canton, where he pledged support for affected areas and urged Texans to pull together as neighbors.

The storm cut through farming communities and towns, snapping trees in half and crumpling barns as it plowed through homesteads that have withstood rough storms before.

But this one was different, many witnesses said.

“We had spotters out, but this was a rain-hidden tornado,” said Jon Wedeking, Rains County Emergency Management Coordinator. “The news media could see rotation, but we couldn’t see anything.”

WHERE IT HIT

Many East Texans maintained a close eye on the skies Saturday as temperatures climbed to summer-like levels ahead of a fast-moving cold front.

The result was a rapid build-up of stormy weather that brought with it high winds, lightning and hail that seemed to explode with fury out of Canton before moving north toward Fruitvale and continuing on toward Emory.

The path seemed to vary, with some areas receiving very little damage and others appearing as though a bomb had been dropped.

By all accounts, Van Zandt County was the hardest hit.

The first reports of tornadoes came about 4:15 p.m. Saturday, but emergency crews were hampered by continuing severe weather, Van Zandt County Judge Don Kirkpatrick said.

On Saturday, the National Weather Service confirmed two tornadoes in Van Zandt and Henderson counties, but by Sunday they said at least four touched down between 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and one of them lasted nearly two hours.

In a news conference early Sunday, Canton Mayor Lou Ann Everett said the city of Canton was spared, but ravaged rural areas across the region. Initial surveys indicated tornadoes caused damage at least 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, flattening homes,

, uprooting trees and flipping cars at the Dodge dealership in Canton.

“The damage was extensive in the affected areas. It is heartbreaking to say the least,” Everett said. “There was a hasty search done last night that was extremely hampered due to multiple tornadoes, downed power lines, tree and other debris.”

Officials don’t yet have a count on the number of homes damaged or destroyed, but dozens of families are without homes, and weather service officials said it could take days to fully survey the area.

“Right now, we’re focusing on Canton, and we’ll have multiple teams out (Monday) looking at additional damage there,” Meteorologist Daniel Huckaby said. “We also have some additional damage up in Hopkins County that could have been tornadic.”

Most of the area remained without power throughout the day Sunday, as about 30 crews worked to restore electricity and repair five major transmission towers that were toppled. Residents were encouraged to conserve water until generators could be restored to power water wells, and cellphone service was described as spotty.

By Sunday afternoon, workers continued a door-to-door search with a dozen rescue dogs. Officials said they would check on every one of the more than 5,000 structures mapped in the impacted area to ensure every possible person is brought to safety.

As of 3 p.m. Sunday, Everett said at least two people were unaccounted for, and she urged those who had not heard from loved ones to call the American Red Cross Serving East Texas to report them missing.

MOVING INTO FRUITVALE

Van Zandt County Pct. 1 Constable Mickey Henson was storm spotting along Interstate 20 when he saw the storm closing in.

“You could see the rain trails dropping out of the sky,” he said. “I never did see a funnel, but I saw the rotation. It was raining so hard, I couldn’t see it.”

He phoned ahead to alert his family of the approaching monster and followed the trail of destruction after the storm passed.

“This is home,” he said Sunday morning from a neighborhood off Highway 80 in Fruitvale where several homes were either destroyed or heavily damaged, including two that belong to Van police officers. “It’s personal because you know everybody. You see them at the ball games, at church. This community will come together like we are now.”

A short distance away, also in Fruitvale, residents tried to make sense of the devastation.

A series of homes off Highway 80 near the 12700 block appeared among the hardest hit.

“I’m so distraught,” said Tessa Harrington. “I put my cat in the taxi and I got in the shower. I just started praying. It got pitch black and I could hear the train (tornado sound) coming.”

The storm missed her home, but took out several others a few blocks over.

One of the homes that took a direct hit belonged to the aunt and uncle of Dea Madison, who was found working alongside husband, Jon, to retrieve water-soaked family photos.

“My cousin called me, she couldn’t find them,” Mrs. Madison said. “She was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, there’s nothing here. They were in the house when it hit, hiding under the bed. It (tornado) threw them out.”

Emergency personnel located the couple and transported them to an area hospital for treatment.

Mrs. Madison said they found a few old photos and the couple’s missing cat, which jumped in their car and refused to come out from under the seat.

The injured couple apparently moved from the Washington area a year earlier to be closer to family.

“He loves trains,” Madison said, staring in dismay at a yard strewn with miniature trains and railroad-themed memorabilia. “That’s why they liked this property … the train tracks are right over there.”

Across the street, Teddy and Pat Bass were wrangling their goats, Bella and Johnny, into a trailer.

The storm took out the fencing, but the pair stayed put.

“We were about to buy this house,” he said. “We live about a mile from here and our other house is fine. I was sleeping on the couch. We heard on the news it was coming this way, but we didn’t know it would be this close.”

Their soon-to-be home sustained undetermined damages, as did several outbuildings, Bass said, adding, “Four storage buildings and a carport are gone.”

His wife added, “Everything is gone … there’s not a sign of anything.”

EMORY GETS HIT

Precinct 1 Constable Stephen Bowser, a 28-year-lawman, works the area that includes Alba, Yantis and territory surrounding Lake Fork.

He started looking for trouble several hours before it arrived.

“I saw the radar and saw where it would collide,” he said. “I’ve been to Katrina, Rita and five other major disasters, including Van.”

He spent Sunday diverting traffic out of affected neighborhoods along the disaster route.

“If I could say one thing, that would be for people not to just get out and drive around, just to look,” he said. “We need only emergency personnel in these areas. Sometimes it creates more of a problem … it can take away the ability to get to people quicker.”

In Emory, areas along and near the 2000 block of East Highway 69, sustained heavy damage, but roads and bridges were cleared for traffic.

In one yard, a recreational vehicle was upside down, but the house was still intact; across the highway, some homes were completely destroyed or crushed by trees.

A nearby garden filled with spring tomato plants sat virtually untouched, the vines still tethered to the wire cages.

In spite of the damage, no deaths were reported. A triage set up at the Emory Fire Department cared for walking wounded.

A pregnant woman with contractions was transported to an area hospital, but there was no word on her condition.

Wedeking, Emergency Management Coordinator in Rains County, said events played out fast as the storm closed in.

“I got the OMG moment when they said Canton had one on the ground,” he said. “We had an hour before it got here. With that time frame, that was a reason there were no fatalities.”

Starting late Saturday and throughout the following day, U.S. Highway 69 was crowded with spectators in both directions, forcing Texas Highway Patrol troopers to set up at some major intersections to aid in traffic control near the established neighborhood of Bear Creek.

“The entire subdivision of Bear Creek is affected,” Wedeking said. “Either houses are destroyed or sustained major damages. We also had a Catholic church in session with 40 parishioners. They made it to the hallway before the roof picked up.”

No serious injuries were reported at the church.

Authorities said a Code Red early detection system installed several years earlier helped keep the number of injuries to a minimum.

It sent out text, Facebook and email messages warning people to take cover immediately.

More than 400 people sought shelter at the Emory tornado shelter before it hit, Wedeking said, adding, “I’d like to believe that the system saved lives.”

County Commissioner Mike Willis was in Arkansas when he heard Emory was under the tornado’s thumb.

He came into town on Texas Highway 19 and felt a wave of panic the closer he got to home.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It changed the landscape and it was heading to my house.”

He’s confident people will support one another through the recovery.

“This county is driven by community spirit,” he said. “They are driven to get up in the middle of the night with a chain saw and tractor to help their neighbors. They help each other.”

RESCUE WORKERS & VOLUNTEERS TURN OUT

While authorities in Van Zandt County urged people to stay out of the Canton area as rescue efforts continued, volunteers began appearing in some parts of East Texas armed with power equipment and good intentions.

Precinct 3 Rains County Commissioner Mike Godwin was found in a muddy parking lot attempting to coordinate volunteer resources.

He said there were still areas in the community hard pressed for assistance, as he directed one group to help remove a large tree blocking an elderly woman in her home.

“The turnout and support of the people willing to work is tremendous,” he said. “The police department, the fire department, the volunteers, they are all pulling together. The best thing is, there were no fatalities. That was a blessing.”

Logan Gunter serves Rains County and the Point Volunteer Fire Department.

“We are a really close community,” he said. “It makes me want to help out more.”

Among the volunteers working Sunday in Fruitvale was Kylista Reynolds, an 11th-grader from Van.

Her home was heavily damaged in 2015 when an EF-3 tornado tore through her hometown, killing two and injuring more than 40.

“I know exactly what it feels like,” she said from Fruitvale. “Two words can describe what a tornado feels like – helplessness and empty. All you have left is family. I was 14 then … it took about two years to recover.”

Her purpose in visiting Fruitvale was to recover photos so they can be reunited with the owners. Best friend Mariah Keltner, of Edom, came along for support.

“Old photos are something you can’t replace,” Kylista said “These people need all the help they can get.”

Steve Wright drove in from Wylie with four chainsaws and a willingness to lend a hand to anyone in need.

“We experienced it (tornado) last Christmas,” he said. “I know what these people are going through, and I’m here to help.”

Professional tree trimmer Lee Bartlett lives in Edgewood, but spent the day on the road.

He encountered a tornado several years ago when he lived in Sweetwater and knows the struggles associated with recovery.

“I’m just trying to help out,” he said. “Sometimes you need to know that you’re going to get things taken care of … we happen to have the expertise and we’re trying to help. They are our neighbors.”

Twitter: @TMT_Jacque

LouAnna Campbell and Emily Guevara contributed to this report.