‘Total devastation’: Texas storms leave 11 dead, hundreds without homes


A house destroyed on County Rd 489 in Copeville, Texas, after heavy rain, high winds and tornados swept through North Texas the previous night, on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. (Rachel Woolf/The Dallas Morning News)


 Email fmattiza@dallasnews.com Published: December 26, 2015 1:04 pm


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Updated at 4:15 p.m. Sunday: Revised throughout the day to reflect the latest information.

Hundreds huddled in shelters Sunday while trying to add up the damage to their homes, churches and schools caused by deadly storms that blew through North Texas.

Eleven people, including an infant, were killed in Dallas and Collin counties, and as many as 11 tornadoes were reported to the National Weather Service.

A tornado that blew through Garland killing eight people Saturday night has been classified as an EF4, with winds up to 200 mph, according to the Weather Service. And a tornado that killed two people in Copeville has been classified as an EF2.

Meteorologists also rated the tornado that touched ground in Rowlett an EF3. Meteorologists were working Sunday to confirm just how many tornadoes touched down across North Texas.

The reported tornadoes started as far south as Hillsboro and moving north toward Blue Ridge and northeast to Sulphur Springs.

“I don’t know if it was one tornado or several,” said meteorologist Matt Bishop. “We’re trying to figure it all out.”

Residents and rescue workers continued to work frantically Sunday morning, battling early heavy rain and the forecast of more downpours in the afternoon. By Sunday night, forecasters are predicting a rain and snow mix over the same neighborhoods.

About 8,000 power outages were reported Sunday, mostly in Rowlett, down from 50,000 at the height of the storm.

“This is catastrophic,” said Rowlett city manager Brian Funderburk. “We are going to have many people displaced for months.”

Early estimates suggested as many as 1,000 homes and buildings were damaged across Ellis, Dallas and Collin counties.

Gov. Greg Abbott asked Sunday afternoon that Texans remain vigilant, heed authorities instructions and stay off the roads. He said there is no official count of the number of storm fatalities statewide.

“I want to emphasize the compassion, support and prayers that I and the first lady off to those … who have lost a family member,” Abbott said.

An onlooker takes pictures of the damage after a tornado hit last night in Garland, Texas on December 27, 2015. (Nathan Hunsinger The Dallas Morning News)

Garland devastation

Authorities were still sorting through wreckage Sunday near Interstate 30 and the George Bush Turnpike. Police said the eight people killed in Garland all died in tornado-related traffic accidents Saturday. A twister ripped through Garland around 6:45 p.m., sending a dozen or so vehicles into the air, said police spokesman Lt. Pedro Barineau.

Meteorologists estimated the EF4 classified tornado brought up to 200 mph winds to Garland. The tornado ravaged about a two-square-mile area to the southwest and the northeast of I-30 and the Bush Turnpike.

Some of the bodies were recovered in the crashed cars and trucks; some were thrown from the scene.

“So many families have been impacted by this,” said Barineau. “Such a devastating thing.”

The Dallas County medical examiner is working to identify the eight dead and notify their families. No one has been publicly identified.

Garland police said 15 people were transported by ambulance to local hospitals with various injuries, but none appeared to be life-threatening.

Some Garland residents who had to evacuate their homes took refuge at gas stations near the corner of I-30 and Bobtown.

At Homeboys Shell gas station, people charged their phones, filled up on coffee, bought Subway sandwiches and traded stories with each other. Some showed photos on their cell phones of the damage. They exchanged tips on how to avoid the police roadblocks. One man covered his face with his hands and cried.

Red Cross volunteers loaded cots and blankets into a gymnasium at the Gale Fields Recreation Center, 1701 Dairy Road in Garland. Volunteers lugged in trash bags full of canned food, blankets and clothes. Donated children’s toys and stuffed animals lined a wall. 

About 41 people are staying at the shelter, said Sharon Sanders, a supervisor with the Red Cross.

John Adams, 39, sat next to a wall under some blankets. Breathing tubes ran from his nose to an oxygen machine beside him. He and his wife, Qiana Adams, 35, sought refuge at the shelter after they lost power in their Garland apartment. The tornado passed close by their apartment, but they somehow were spared.

“I thought we were about to die,” Qiana said. “We’re just thankful to be alive.”

Lanita Meadows, 39, and her husband were staying at the shelter until they could return to their Garland house, which wasn’t damaged but lost power. She said she was used to helping others after serving eight years in the military.

“Usually I’m on the volunteer side,” she said. “But now, I’m helpless.”

The volunteers said they were moved to act after seeing the devastation that they so narrowly missed.

“That could’ve easily been us,” said Brandy Madden, who lives near I-30 and George Bush Turnpike.

Her mother, Sheila Madden, cried after seeing the displaced families with nothing.

“You hear these things on TV, but when you’re seeing it for real and seeing the people with pajama clothes on … it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “People don’t realize how little they have.”

About 600 buildings in Garland were damaged, many of them completely leveled. Those include businesses and multi-family residences, but the majority were single-family homes.

“It is total devastation,” Barineau said.

Collins Road at Barnes Bridge Road was closed Sunday morning because of storm damage and flooding. Several neighborhood residents were there at 8 a.m. to try to get back into their homes, but police were not letting anyone through.

Police are still searching the damaged homes Sunday, looking for anyone who may be trapped. As of 7:20 a.m., Barineau said, police haven’t received reports of any missing people.

It’s a difficult time to be struck by such a horrible storm,” Barineau said. “The day after Christmas it is horrible.”


3 killed in Collin County

Attendance at Sunday school class was sparse at the First Baptist Church of Copeville on Sunday morning.

Two people died in the town Saturday night, and an infant was killed in nearby Blue Ridge, county officials said. The National Weather Service classified the tornado in Copeville an EF2.

The five adults sat around a meeting table and prayed for those who had lost their lives and those who had lost their homes.

“When our faith is tested, that’s when we’re supposed to be doing our best,” said Pastor Stan Welch.

The members said the unincorporated town was small but close-knit.

“It is the most loving, down to earth people,” Welch said. “There’s not a lot of shine here, just a lot of good hearts.”

Klarissa Warner, a stay-at-home mom who lives near Copeville, said she wasn’t hit by the storms. But she and her husband ran out to the neighborhoods and passed out hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue to hungry workers and homeowners.

Their group, Refuge on Call, also passed out food in a pharmacy parking lot.

Demand is high, she said.

“We keep making runs to Sam’s Club,” she said.

A view of the damage in Ovilla (KXAS-TV)

Collin County Judge Keith Self was touring the damaged areas in Copeville and Farmersville on Sunday afternoon. Debris was scattered for miles.

“It’s a tragic event,” he said. “It just shows the power of tornadoes.”

He said he expects the damage in Blue Ridge to be classified an EF-0 or EF-1. Self said he plans to sign a disaster declaration for the county but doesn’t believe the damage will be enough to quality for assistance.

Some homes near Blue Ridge were completely destroyed, there was also damage to homes outside of Farmersville and in Josephine, Sheriff’s Captain Jim Moody said.

There is also debris in Nevada but no damage, he said.

Collin County’s damage estimates will go toward the state’s total, which could mean federal assistance. An estimated 10 homes in the county were destroyed and another 20 were damaged.

Copeville sustained the worst of the damage and between 4 and 6 homes were destroyed. Highway 78, where a gas station was destroyed, opened to traffic late Sunday morning.

Authorities did not confirm reports that the two people killed in Copeland were at the gas station when the storms hit.

Amanda Williams’ house in Copeville was torn apart by the Dec. 26 tornado. (Valerie Wigglesworth/Dallas Morning News)

Rowlett tornado classified EF3

Rowlett’s assessment of damage from Saturday night’s tornado was completed late Sunday afternoon – 446 homes were affected, 142 had minor damage, 83 had major damage and 101 were total losses.

But the numbers that mattered most, 23 injured and zero fatalities, remained unchanged Sunday – despite the four-mile gash the F3 tornado cut through the southeast portion of the city of 57,000.

The tornado hit Rowlett about 15 minutes after a tornado was reported in Garland on Saturday. Winds up to 165 mph blew through Rowlett.

“Tomorrow, we begin moving into a different phase. Debris management,” City Manager Brian Funderburk said.

About 23 businesses near the intersection of Dalrock Road and State Highway 66 were also damaged. Some among them will be closed a while, city officials said. But the two major grocery stores – Tom Thumb and Wal-Mart – patched their roofs and remain open.

There are still 6,000 homes without power, mostly on the east side of the city. As cold sets in, the American Red Cross and Salvation Army continue to operate a shelter at Stedham Elementary, 6200 Danridge Road. Officials worried that restoring whole sections of the power grid could spark house fires.

City officials continue to refer those who wish to donate to the Red Cross, either online or live at a site set up at 3600 Chaha Road. Several Rowlett churches are also accepting donations, as is Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall.

A 24-hour curfew continues in all impacted neighborhoods. Only emergency workers and residents are allowed inside.

Police Chief Mike Brodnax did not think looting would be a problem, though there was an incident late Saturday.

“We know who is in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We feel pretty safe right now. Our biggest problem is the anxiety of our citizens wanting to get back into our neighborhoods.”

There was no estimate on when the neighborhoods would reopen. Or even if it would happen by Jan. 5, the day school is to resume at Pearson Elementary, the closest campus to the Rowlett storm’s path. While signs and trees near the school were broken, Pearson itself seemed intact, just outside the direct path of damage.

An aging water tower in a hard hit area near Martha Drive was drained as a precaution Sunday and will be reexamined Monday. There was a 300-foot perimeter near the tower where evacuation was ordered. But only one home within the range was still inhabited.

No damage has been reported to municipal facilities other than the water tower. City offices will be open Monday and in unimpacted neighborhoods, garbage collection routes will run as usual.

“It’s an absolute miracle as far as I’m concerned,” said Mayor Todd Gottel. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do it justice … telephone pole after telephone pole after telephone pole snapped like twigs.”

A handful of people were already waiting for Andrew McKibben when he arrived at Steadham Elementary an hour after the tornado hit Rowlett.

McKibben, the Red Cross shelter director, said about 10 stayed overnight. Most of the traffic has been people who have a place to stay, but need supplies.

“Rowlett has so many people with open arms. ‘If you need help, come into our house,’” said McKibben, a resident of the city.

One of the most needed supplies was medicine. Several who were forced out of their homes quickly didn’t think to grab their prescriptions. With registered nurses among the volunteers, McKibben said, the shelter came in handy.

Authorities said they worried that freezing rain could compound an already bad situation in the city.

“Not only did we get hit, but it hasn’t stopped raining since we got hit,” Rowlett police Chief Mike Brodnax . “And we’re looking at an ice storm in 24 hours.”

Officials confirmed a community of a few dozen trailer homes between Chiesa Road and an arm of the lake took on major damage. Trailers were also hit in Sunnyvale, said State Rep. Cindy Burkett, who lives there.

Burkett said she spoke to Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff Saturday night.

“I’ve been here 13 years and this is the worst incident we’ve had,” Funderburk said.

Glenn Heights, Ovilla, Red Oak also hit

More than 200 homes were damaged or destroyed in the Ovilla, Glenn Heights and Red Oak area Saturday night.

But, officials are asking that do-gooders wait until they are able to assess the full damage before sending donations or volunteers to the area.

About 900 migrant children temporarily housed in retreat centers in Royse City and nearby Waxahachie are safe, after a cluster of tornadoes stormed through North Texas, said Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman with the U. S. Health and Human Services Department.

Helling said the children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were moved into larger buildings at the camp and retreat centers, as a part of emergency plans.

In Glenn Heights, the Ovilla Road Church of the Nazarene, was destroyed Saturday. Pastor Ron Adams stood surveying the damage in the driveway of his home and the Glenn Heights church early Sunday morning.

The tornado tore through the east wing of the building and left church vans flipped in the adjacent field. Nearby Shields Elementary School was also damaged.

“Not a single room was not affected,” Adams said.

There were no injuries. Adams said that normally he and other church members would be rehearsing for the Sunday service when the tornado struck, but he had canceled the rehearsal to attended the Mavericks game.

After the news spread, 80 people came to salvage what they could from the building.

Another nearby church, the Harvest of Praise Church, was destroyed in the storm. Members of the young and growing church turned out Sunday morning to sift through the wreckage.

“I want them to be able to see it before we have to tear it down,” said Pastor Kevin Taylor.

In defiance to the weather and as a sign of hope, members planted a Texas flag to stand tall above the rubble.

Taylor’s phone has been ringing nonstop with offers of spaces for the congregation to continue worshiping. He doesn’t know where they will go, but he knows they will continue.

“God has been blessing us,” Taylor said. “We will rebuild.”


A view of the damage in Ovilla (KXAS-TV)

Staff writers Tasha Tsiaperas, Ray Leszcynski,Hannah Wise, Naomi Martin, Jeffrey Weiss, Valerie Wigglesworth and Claire Cardona contributed to this report.