BY LORIE LIEBIG Wide Open Country
Over the holiday weekend, severe weather tore through North Texas and left a trail of utter devastation in its wake.
Eleven people were killed in Dallas and Collin counties after the storms hit the area on Saturday. The northwest suburbs of Dallas were the hardest hit during the outbreak. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in Garland, TX after an EF-4 tornado with winds nearing 200 mph touched down. The storm quickly moved east and spawned another tornado in Rowlett, which injured 23 people and flattened a large area of the town.
So far, the National Weather Service in Fort Worth has confirmed that nine tornadoes touched down in the area on Saturday evening. Due to the incredible devastation, dozens of families were forced to spend the rest of their holiday weekend inside shelters. According to the Star-Telegram, officials say that the severe weather outbreak was the worst that the Dallas-Fort Worth area had seen in nearly 90 years.
As many begin the long process of cleaning up after these storms, many are beginning to share shocking footage of the tornadoes as they wreaked havoc through the area.
The video above, shot by Live Storms Media, shows the immense size and power of the twister that hit Rowlett. The tornado quickly became larger and gained tighter rotation as it sped toward the busy roadways nearby.
Another video shot by storm chasers as they drove through Rowlett gives you an idea of just how many people were out and about while the tornado tore through the town. Many cars are seen driving toward the funnel cloud as it nears the I-30 interstate.
North Texas tornadoes were deadliest in decades
At least 11 people were killed in outbreak
Garland tornado categorized as an EF-4
Assessment teams confirmed nine tornadoes
BY BILL HANNA AND DOMINGO RAMIREZ
The tornadoes that killed at least 11 people in Dallas and Collin counties Saturday night were the deadliest twisters to hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area in almost 90 years, officials said.
Damage assessment teams, hampered by steady rainfall and plunging temperatures, spent Sunday investigating the storm’s aftermath in Rowlett, Garland and Collin and Ellis counties, said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service Office in Fort Worth.
“We’re seeing literally hundreds of homes and buildings damaged along with dozens and dozens destroyed,” Bradshaw said.
EF-4 tornado touched down in Garland, with wind speeds of 166-200 mph.
In Garland, where hundreds of homes were damaged and eight people killed, the tornado was classified an EF-4, with wind speeds up to 200 mph.
In Rowlett, an EF-3 tornado, with wind speeds up to 165 mph, pummeled 101 homes and injured 23 people. A 24-hour curfew was established Sunday afternoon for the affected areas.
Three people were killed in Collin County.
And in Ellis County near Midlothian, south of Dallas, more than 100 homes were damaged and at least two people were injured, including one who is in critical condition.
The National Weather Service in Fort Worth said it was able to confirm nine tornadoes in North Texas during Saturday’s outbreak.
The assessment teams will go out again on Monday, “so that number may go up,” said Jamie Gudmestad, a meteorologist with the NWS Fort Worth office.
Tarrant County was spared from tornadoes and has seen mostly rain and high winds. Hail fell in parts of the county Sunday afternoon, including in Arlington, Hurst and North Richland Hills. The nasty weather here and elsewhere resulted in more than 640 flights being canceled Sunday at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned that the number of victims from Saturday’s tornadoes could rise. At a Sunday afternoon news conference, Abbott declared disasters in Dallas, Collin, Rockwall and Ellis counties.
The deadliest tornado on record for the DFW area came on May 9, 1927, when 19 people were killed in Collin County and 15 in Dallas County. That tornado was an EF-4, according to National Weather Service records.
Statewide, the deadliest tornado on record came on May 11, 1953, in Waco, where an EF-5 twister killed 114 people and injured almost 600 more.
The conditions seen Saturday were more like those seen in May than in December.
“We had an exceptionally warm and unstable air mass with temperatures close to 80 degrees,” Bradshaw said. “It was more like Memorial Day weekend than the day after Christmas.”
Those ingredients were perfect for forming intense tornadoes, which were first reported popping up to the south and east of the DFW Metroplex in Hill, Ellis and Van Zandt counties.
As the day gave way to night, the deadly tornadoes developed.
“Healthy super cells were able to form as a very intense storm system moved in from the west,” Bradshaw said. “We had all of the key ingredients you would expect in mid-to-late spring.”
The tornado hit Garland about 6:45 p.m. Saturday, and before it lifted, about 600 structures — most of them single-family homes — were damaged, Garland city officials said Sunday. The storm damage was in a two-square-mile area.
Several of the fatalities in Garland occurred in a traffic accident near Interstate 30 and the George Bush Turnpike, at the Garland-Rowlett border, officials said.
Garland police spokesman Mike Hatfield said vehicles likely fell as far as 17 feet from a bridge. Several other people were injured.
Injuries were also reported at a Garland apartment complex. Hatfield said all residents had vacated their apartments with their pets and other belongings. The Red Cross set up shelters for residents.
“This is a huge impact on our community, and we’re all suffering,” Garland police Lt. Pedro Barineau said Sunday. “Driving around the area, you can see that it’s total devastation.”
"It was total chaos. People were running, screaming, crying..." said Tania Mendoza at the Red Cross Shelter.
As the tornado approached, Charlesetta Barnett crawled to a closet in her family's Garland home.
The woman had gotten out of her wheelchair to get into the closet with seven other family members.
Within minutes, part of the roof on their home on Oakmont Lane was gone.
“It had gone dark because the electricity had gone off,” Desire Barnett said as her family regrouped at the Gaile Field Recreation Center in Garland, one of the Red Cross shelters opened for residents. “Then, there was this sound like a train. To me, it lasted for several minutes.”
None of the Barnett family members were injured.
“I don't know what we will do now," Desire Barnett said, referring to the family's future. “I’ve never been through anything like this.”
Pouring rain Sunday kept rescue workers, residents and authorities at bay for most of the day.
At one point, traffic on Interstate 30 was backed up for miles as vehicles crawled along the highway.
Tania Mendoza was thankful that the storms had spared her family's Garland home, but many of her neighbors were not as lucky.
“I looked across the street, and my neighbor's home was gone. There were just bricks there,” Mendoza said. She said her family’s home had minor damage.
The Mendoza family had to leave their neighborhood, however, because of the threat of natural gas leaks and downed power lines.
“We got out of there as fast as we could, and we didn’t even bring the kids their shoes,” Mendoza said, talking about Tamiya, 4, and Deacon, 3. “But people at the shelter got us some shoes for the kids, and we’re doing better now.”
Slight chance of snow overnight
While North Texas rescue efforts were being hampered by the wet and cold weather, a blizzard continued in the Texas Panhandle, where visibility had dropped to zero in some areas, snow drifts climbed to between 5 and 10 feet, and the wind chill was hovering below zero.
With blowing snow — wind gusts were measured at 50 mph — the Texas Department of Public Safety in Amarillo said almost all of the 178-mile stretch of Interstate 40 in the Panhandle was closed through Monday morning because of deteriorating conditions.
Much less snow — more of a wintry mix — was expected overnight and early Monday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Monday morning’s low is expected to be 35 degrees.
WE DO THINK WE’LL SEE A FEW FLAKES OF SNOW IN TARRANT COUNTY MONDAY MORNING, BUT IT WILL BE TOO WARM TO SEE ANY ACCUMULATIONS.
Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist
“We do think we’ll see a few flakes of snow in Tarrant County Monday morning, but it will be too warm to see any accumulations,” Bradshaw said. “But you could see problems west of Fort Worth. There may be problems on Ranger Hill along Interstate 20 and accumulations west of a line from Gainesville to Mineral Wells and Goldthwaite.”
The Fort Worth area saw mostly rain Saturday and Sunday, so much, in fact, that the annual total surpassed 60 inches for the first time ever at D/FW Airport. With 1.18 falling through 6 p.m. Sunday, it has rained 61.46 inches in 2015, which was already the wettest year on record.
Collin County, Rowlett storms
The tornado that hit Saturday in Collin County, on the east side of Lake Lavon, was confirmed as an EF-2, with wind speeds up to 135 mph.
Most of the damage from that one occurred in the eastern portion of the county, along the Texas 78 corridor from Copeville to Blue Ridge, said Collin County spokesman Tim Wyatt.
Two people were killed in Copeville, near the Hilltop Grocery Store, and the third fatality was an infant who died near Blue Ridge.
Another eight people in the area were taken to hospitals in McKinney and Greenville, Wyatt said in an email.
In Rowlett, northeast of Garland, Dale Vermurlen lived in a neighborhood that sustained heavy damage. His house only had minor damage but was next to others that were flattened.
“I grabbed both dogs by the collars and held on to the toilet,” Vermurlen told The Associated Press. “I said, ‘OK this could be it, boys.’ ”
More than 30 tornado warnings were issued across North Texas on Saturday.
And while tornadoes are rare in December, they are not unheard of in Texas, where there are an average of five per year in December.
On average, North Texas has about 155 tornadoes per year, most of them coming in April, May and June.
The most recent deadly North Texas outbreak came in May 2013, when 16 tornadoes touched down, including an EF-4 in the Granbury area that leveled dozens of homes and killed six people.
ON AVERAGE, NORTH TEXAS HAS ABOUT 155 TORNADOES PER YEAR, MOST OF THEM COMING IN APRIL, MAY AND JUNE.
Before Saturday, the last December tornado in North Texas came on Dec. 29, 2006, when 15 twisters were confirmed, mostly in Johnson County and near Groesbeck, where one person was killed.
Two EF-0 tornadoes touched down in Tarrant County in November — one in north Fort Worth and one in Keller — the fifth and sixth time twisters have been confirmed in that month.
STAFF WRITER MONICA NAGY AND MANAGING EDITOR LEE WILLIAMS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT, WHICH INCLUDES INFORMATION FROM STAR-TELEGRAM ARCHIVES.