GRANBURY, Texas (AP) — Habitat for Humanity spent years in a North Texas subdivision, helping build many of the 110 homes in the low-income area. But its work was largely undone during an outbreak of 16 tornadoes Wednesday night that killed six people and injured dozens.
On Thursday, authorities combed through debris in Granbury, while residents awaited the chance to see what was left of their homes. Witnesses described the two badly hit neighborhoods as unrecognizable, with homes ripped from foundations and others merely rubble.
Granbury, about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth, bore the brunt of the damage. The National Weather Service's preliminary estimate was that tornado had wind speeds between 166 and 200 mph. Other tornadoes spawned from the violent spring storm damaged nearby Cleburne and Millsap.
"I tell you, it has just broken my heart," said Habitat for Humanity volunteer Elsie Tallant, who helped serve lunch every weekend to those building the homes in a Granbury neighborhood and those poised to become homeowners.
Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry said Thursday he couldn't tell one street from another in Granbury's Rancho Brazos Estates neighborhood because of the destruction. Half of one home was torn away while the other half was still standing, glasses and vases intact on shelves. Trees and debris were scattered across yards, and fences were flattened. Sheet metal could be seen hanging from utility wires.
The weather service said the preliminary storm estimate for the Granbury tornado was an EF-4, based on the Fujita tornado damage scale. An EF-5 is the most severe.
Of the homes in the Rancho Brazos Estates, 61 of them were built by Habitat for Humanity, according to Gage Yeager, executive director of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth. He said most of those homes were damaged, including at least a dozen that were destroyed.
Raul Rodriguez was among the lucky few: His Habitat for Humanity home was still standing. The 42-year-old mechanic rode the storm out in a closet with his wife and three children. They heard the windows shattering outside but realized their fortune when they emerged to see a heartbreaking scene.
"Injured people, bloody people, started coming to our house, asking us to call 911," said Rodriguez, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than two years. He assessed his own home, finding only shattered windows, lost roof shingles and a collapsed garage.
"My neighbors to the right, they lost everything," he said.
Habitat for Humanity homes, built for low-income buyers using volunteer labor and donations, are financed with affordable loans. The nonprofit selects homeowners based on their level of need, willingness to become partners in the program and ability to repay their loan. Homeowners invest their own time into building the homes as well.
Habitat for Humanity volunteer Bill Jackson said the damaged or destroyed homes were insured and can be rebuilt. But that doesn't alleviate Tallant's pain. She'd gotten to know the people who had waited for years to become homeowners.
"We were going to dedicate a house this weekend, and her home was destroyed," she said.
Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said Thursday afternoon that two of the dead were women and four of them men; one man and one woman in their 80s.
"Some were found in houses. Some were found around houses," Deeds said. Six or seven people have not been accounted for, he said at a news conference.
"I'm very confident we'll find those people alive and well," Deeds said, adding 37 injured people were treated at hospitals. "We're going to keep looking. We're not going to give up until every piece of debris is turned over."
Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the weather service's severe storm lab in Norman, Okla., said May 15 is the latest into the month that the U.S. has had to wait for its first significant tornadoes of the year. Brooks said he would expect 2013 to be one of the least lethal tornado years since the agency started keeping records in 1954.
Earlier Thursday, about 20,000 homes and businesses in the region were without power. By the evening, it had dropped to nearly 3,500 homes and businesses.
Another tornado cut a mile-wide path through Cleburne on Wednesday, storm spotters told the National Weather Service. The weather service said it was estimated as an EF-3, which has winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said Thursday morning that no one was killed or seriously hurt in the city of about 30,000 some 25 miles southeast of Granbury. Nine people suffered minor injuries, and upward of 150 homes were damaged and another 50 were destroyed.
Cleburne resident Derrek Grisham, 26, said he ran to his mother's home to check on her and his 10-year-old son, who was staying with her.
"I had to kick in the front door to get them out," he said, explaining the two had taken shelter in a bathtub.
On Thursday, he went through his mother's damaged home, salvaging items before the home is likely torn down. The roof had been ripped off and he said her belongings were a jumbled mass, but crosses had stayed in place on the living room wall.
Just a week after severe storms brought damaging wind and tornadoes to the St. Louis area, the threat of more dangerous weather is in the forecast. Hazelwood residents continue to clean up after a twister ripped through their community last week. But their mayor is hoping they'll now shift focus from patching roofs to preparing for the next round of storms.
Mayor Matthew Robinson says he hopes people heed the warning the next time the tornado sirens sound. "When they do," he said, "obviously you can see what we went through here in Hazelwood. People need to take shelter, because you never know. You never know when that train’s going to be coming.”
The mayor says if temporary tarps are damaged in this next round of storms, there are materials and supplies and volunteers that’ll come out again and help patch them up again.
Meanwhile residents in one storm-battered Hazelwood apartment complex are still trying to recover. That includes Renee Fletcher, who spent Tuesday gathering her things from her damaged apartment before they could be ruined by more bad weather.
Fletcher says some things have already been ruined. "There is significant molding that’s already taking place in the building," she said. "So definitely, you want to get your things out, but it’s not safe for you to be in there anyway."
Fletcher had lived at the Teson Garden Apartments when the tornado struck last week. All nine buildings in the complex were so badly damaged, they've been condemned. Police say residents have until 6:00 p.m. Wednesday to collect their belongings. Then the buildings will be closed up for repairs. Two of the buildings may need to be torn down.
All schools in the Hazelwood School District will be in session on Monday.
The district had called off school on Thursday, the morning after an EF-2 tornado damaged homes in the north county district. Some Hazelwood schools had reopened by Friday, but others had not.
District officials say classes will resume in all district schools Monday, with counselors on hand to talk with students who are dealing with emotional strain after the storms.
School buses will be running in all neighborhoods, but one stop had to be moved because of storm damage. According to the district website, the stop for West Middle School that is normally at Lynn Haven and Howdershell will be moved this morning only to Lynn Haven and Deville.