By Jeff Brumley
Damage assessments are only beginning to come in, but some disaster responders say rebuilding the Texas communities clobbered by tornadoes over the weekend will require relief work on par with the 2013 Oklahoma twisters.
Among the worst that year was the May 20 Moore tornado, which killed 24 as it left a wake of destruction over miles of territory.
In the spring and summer that followed — and continuing to this day — thousands of volunteers coordinated by Baptist and other religious groups from surrounding states flooded into the region to help residents revive their neighborhoods and lives.
Now, the leaders of some of the same faith-based disaster response organizations that responded to Moore say it may be déjà vu after three twisters tore through the Dallas area on Saturday, killing 11, according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s going to take that kind of effort to help out here,” said Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men.
‘Moved over to another street’
The tornadoes that ravaged parts of the Lone Star state the day after Christmas were spawned by a larger weather system that wreaked havoc across several states, according to the NWS and media reports.
Among its holiday gifts were hail, freezing rain and flooding.
But a number of Dallas County communities, including the cities of Garland and Rowlett, and Ellis and Collin counties, took it on the chin with the tornadic activity.
Rowlett reported on its website Monday that 23 people there were injured in an EF3 tornado that struck the city. It also reported that 854 of 1,000 assessed homes had been damaged, including 188 with major damage and 148 destroyed. Nearly 5,000 homes remained without power at the time.
Garland initially reported 3,500 without power as a result of an EF4 tornado with winds from 166 to 200 mph. Estimates are that 600 structures were damaged.
“There have been 8 confirmed fatalities due to the storm,” the city reported online Sunday.
Another three were killed in Collin County, The Dallas Morning News reported.
Ellis County reported no deaths but on Sunday said that 40 homes had been destroyed by the twister that left another 2,300 without power.
Henderson, who toured some of the affected areas on Monday, said the devastation is typical for the aftermath of major tornadoes.
“There are neighborhoods where homes are leveled … and across the street there might be one with only a few shingles missing,” he said. “And there are a lot of homes that have been picked up and moved over to another street.”
‘Not letting people in’
In addition to reports of destruction and power outages, some of those communities are asking people not to show up to help.
“The Garland Police Department is requesting that people avoid storm-damaged areas as search-and-rescue efforts continue, including those who may wish to volunteer,” the city website said.
Experts familiar with disaster relief say Garland’s request is normal because untrained and unregistered volunteers can do more harm than good in the early stages of response efforts.
“People are really ready to help but it’s not time yet,” said David Scott, disaster recovery director for Texas Baptist Disaster Recovery.
Like the first responders, faith-based disaster recovery organizations also struggle with a potential flood of volunteers before they are needed, Scott said.
He said that 500 people arrived in Ellis County after the twister wanting to help. The challenge is convincing potential volunteers bearing chain saws and other equipment to simply give online instead.
“Getting them not to show up — that is one of the hardest things right now,” he said.
The challenge is that relief agencies were only just being allowed into to some of the devastated communities on Monday, Scott said.
“We don’t have any access to the neighborhoods that are affected except Ellis County,” he said of Texas Baptist Disaster Relief. “But here in Garland and Rowlette they are not letting people in.”
‘They do respond well’
But there is at least one service that responders already know the victims need: chaplaincy.
“They are in shock,” Henderson said, based on his tour of areas opened by police. “They don’t know what to do and they are just standing in the street.”
And they are doing so all over the region. Unlike the 2013 tornado season in Oklahoma, the devastation in Texas is located in pockets dotting the region.
“But if you put all this area together, it’s about the same as Moore,” Henderson said.
Scott said it’s “a crystal ball question” to gauge the magnitude of long-term response required to help Texans recover from this latest disaster.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me” if it’s something on the order of that required to help Oklahomans after the 2013 twisters, he said. “The devastation is pretty great.”
And Scott said he has no doubt that Texas Baptists and those from around the region and nation will respond if asked.
“One of the great things about the faith-based family is they do respond well,” Scott said.