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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tornado’s Destruction Cuts Deep in a Small Texas Town

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VAN, Tex. — Pete Lucas, 75, sat outside his home in this debris-strewn East Texas town on Monday and stared at J.E. Rhodes Elementary School next door. A giant tree had toppled onto a school playground, sparing the yellow twisting slide. A section of aluminum roofing dangled from the branches of his front-yard tree. Inside the classrooms, shattered glass, chunks of yellow insulation and holes in the ceiling clashed with construction-paper drawings, racks of Elmer’s glue and Cat in the Hat stickers. Mr. Lucas and other residents of this town of 2,600 said they were thankful, at least, that the tornado that wrecked Van hit on Sunday night, when the school buildings and playgrounds were empty. “If the kids had been here, it would have been devastating,” Mr. Lucas said. In a state with a long list of historic and deadly disasters — hurricanes, industrial explosions, wildfires — the tornado that swept through Van on Sunday seemed rather small scale. Two people were killed, 47 others were sent to hospitals with injuries and 100 homes were damaged or destroyed in the area, the authorities said. But in such a small town, 73 miles east of Dallas in Van Zandt County, the destruction seemed to touch everyone and everything, and to cut deeper than if it had unfolded in a larger and more urban area.
Two of the town’s five schools, Rhodes Elementary and Van Intermediate School, were heavily damaged. The two people who died, a husband and wife, were more than just anonymous fatalities. Melinda Sherbert, whose damaged roof was covered with a blue tarp, saw the wife on Sundays at Van United Methodist Church, where the woman had worked. The day after the storm, late Monday afternoon, it was not those she knew well who were on Ms. Sherbert’s mind. It was those who were strangers to her, dozens of them, who had come to her house and cleaned up debris on her lawn and made repairs.
“It really does give you faith in mankind,” said Ms. Sherbert, whose mother, whom she lives with, has called Van home for all but five of her 92 years. “Neighbors, strangers, everybody. Have we known nine-tenths of the people working in our yard? No.” Tornadoes killed at least four people and left dozens injured in North Texas and Arkansas on Sunday night. In Nashville, Ark., in the southwestern part of the state, a tornado on Sunday left two people dead — another married couple, whose young daughter survived, officials said. In Lake City, in western Iowa, a tornado tore the roof off a high school while more than 100 people were inside it for an assembly. In Van, an official with the National Weather Service said that based on a damage assessment, the twister on Sunday was a Category 3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being the most destructive. Three people were still missing, said Chuck Allen, the Van Zandt County fire marshal and emergency manager, who did not identify the couple who died. Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Van Zandt and six other counties, and state law enforcement officials were taking part in search and rescue efforts.
“It’s a terrible thing for a city to come out like we did, but it’s a great thing the way the people have responded,” Mayor Dean Stone said. The town’s name has nothing to do with a vehicle or with Van Zandt County. Van was named for two local men, according to the Texas State Historical Association: a schoolteacher, Henry Vance, who established a post office in town in 1894, and for a resident named Vannie Tunnel. V. L. Davidson, 90, who has lived in a corner house for 47 years, hunkered down in the bathroom as the wind picked up on Sunday night, and he emerged without a scratch. He was walking outside his house on Monday, in his once-quiet neighborhood near Rhodes Elementary, in his once-quiet town. A helicopter circled overhead. The sounds of crunching, roaring and rumbling seemed to blot out his voice — chain saws, power crews repairing downed lines, construction vehicles and the snap and crackle of his footsteps on a street caked with bits and pieces of trees, debris, glass and shards of his neighbors’ homes. “It happened so fast,” Mr. Davidson said. “It wasn’t five seconds. I mean, that was it.” Mr. Lucas hid underneath a queen-size mattress in a hallway with his wife and his son. No one was injured, and Mr. Lucas’ house had foundation and roof damage but was spared any major damage. None of the windows of his house even shattered. “When I was a kid, we were in one in Broken Arrow, Okla.,” he said. “My auntie told us to put one window up on the east side and one window up on the west side. We still got them open. They tell you now not to do that. But I still take old auntie’s advice.”

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