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'Just start over': Valley View residents rebuild after deadly North Texas tornado

An American flag flies in the wind. Behind it is a large pile of broken wood and other rubble.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Damage left behind by a tornado that passed through Valley View, Texas, over Memorial Day weekend on May 25, 2024.

Joe Baker was at home in Sanger May 25 when a little before 10 p.m., his wife told him a hail storm was moving their way. Worried about the white Dodge pickup he left parked outside his storage unit in Valley View, he headed there to move it indoors.

The storm drew closer to town and intensified into what Baker would later learn was a tornado. He parked inside the building and braced. He remembered the air was quiet at first, then turned into a hollow roar.

“I laid in the front floorboard, and it wasn't long before all the doors and everything blowed out, and the things that were inside the shop started moving outside the shop, and it turned my truck sideways, and some racks fell over and kind of pinned me inside of the truck,” he said. “I couldn't get out.”

Baker managed to call for help once the storm passed, and he waited for daylight to show the full extent of the damage to his nine acres.

Four days later, Baker stood leaning against his white Dodge pickup under the shade of his storage unit’s canopy, staring out at a field of destruction. He was quiet as he contemplated whether he thought, in those tense minutes, he was going to make it out alive.

“I guess I didn't think about it at the time,” he said, paused, and closed his eyes. Baker silently gnawed on his right ring finger nail with his fist closed around his vape pen.

When he did open his eyes, they were misty behind his thick, black-framed glasses. His wife Joann Baker stood silently behind him, drawing slightly closer to her husband as his breath caught in his throat.

Valley View is still tending to its wounds after an estimated EF-3 tornado tore through the community of about 800 people over Memorial Day weekend. Authorities say at least seven people were killed in Cooke County, and that number could likely go up.

Now, Valley View residents and business owners like Baker are attempting to rebuild their lives.

A man leans on a truck with his elbow on the driver's side window frame. A woman stands behind him to the right of the image with her hand around his arm.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Joe Baker, 54, stands with his wife Joann Baker at their property in Valley View, Texas, on May 29, 2024. The couple owns nine acres of land off Interstate 35 that was in the path of a tornado that hit the town over Memorial Day weekend.

The tornado brought winds as fast as 135 miles per hour, authorities said, possibly overturning cars on Interstate 35 and destroying a Shell gas station where people took shelter.

Owners of the Lake Ray Roberts Marina said it also took a “direct hit” from a tornado. Several homes were destroyed and thousands lost power after a reported tornado hit Celina in Collin County.

Severe storms also rolled through parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma, bringing the death toll to more than a dozen in the region.

Baker lost 13 boats and seven trailers. A couple living on his property was left homeless after the tornado destroyed their camper.

He and his wife had no insurance in place as they were planning to sell the property. Baker said he sees the destruction as God’s way of clearing materialistic stress off his plate.

“Our (plan) now is to just send everything that's here to the recyclers and get the property cleaned back up and get the electricity and the plumbing, all the utilities back to where they need to be and start over,” Baker said. “Just start over.”

A boat is overturned. Damaged metal and wood equipment lies on gravel around it. Trucks and other vehicles are visible in the background.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Damage left behind by a tornado that passed through Valley View, Texas, over Memorial Day weekend, pictured May 29, 2024.

The Valley View Volunteer Fire Department confirmed in a Facebook post an outdoor warning siren malfunctioned ahead of the tornado and didn't set off an audible alert due to a wiring issue, officials later found.

The department hadn't conducted a monthly siren test for the past two months due to weather, it said. The FRF Estates and Shenandoah communities west of I-35, some of the residential areas hit hardest by the tornado, were too far away to hear the siren anyway, the department said.

"On a normal, clear day, the siren can be heard outside at best approximately 1/2 mile away," the post reads. "If indoors, the distance is even shorter. The siren is in no way designed to be a warning system for the areas impacted by the tornado."

The damage on the other side of Interstate 35 at A-Affordable Storage was also fairly extensive. Crews were already working to clear large hunks of twisted metal ripped from the storage unit’s roofs.

Cody Neef, vice president of A-Affordable Storage, said he and other property managers are waiting to see how soon they get the insurance money to start rebuilding. Neef said he hopes the damage will take less than six months to repair.

He spent the days after the tornado consulting with renters about what the storm damage meant for their RVs and boats.

“They're upset,” he said. “I mean, obviously they're happy nobody got hurt up here, but nobody likes damage to their personal property, so they're just kind of, you know, a little relieved that, you know, things aren't as bad as they could have been up here.”

A woman places a box into another box a woman beside her is carrying with both arms. The two women stand in front of an open car trunk.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Volunteers unload donated food items from a car at the John Fortenberry Community Center in Valley View, Texas, on May 29, 2024. The center has been a hub for volunteers and groups providing aid to nearby residents affected by the tornado that tore through parts of town over Memorial Day weekend.

Banding together

The John Fortenberry Community Center at the heart of Valley View on South Lee Street has served as one of the home bases for disaster relief donations and aid.

On Wednesday, volunteers in neon green mesh vests walked inside with arms full between stacks of toilet paper, bottled water, diapers and canned foods, taking inventory and unloading more donated materials from car trunks and truck beds outside.

Valley View is continuing to receive state and federal aid, said Joe Wilkerson, the town’s mayor pro tem. The center's had constant hands on deck for days, including people just walking in looking for ways to help.

Wilkerson said what the town needs now is monetary donations as well as tools like tarps, rope, duct tape, nails and cleaning supplies.

“We're hoping within the next couple of weeks that, you know, all of our stock here is gone through and people are kind of set back up and they're ready to start, you know, rebuild,” he said.

Seeing that kindness down the street has been humbling for Tessa Louise Garrison. The 24-year-old and her husband Preston Maughan moved from Spokane, Washington, to their house in Valley View — Maughan’s hometown — the day before the tornado hit.

Garrison was at her parents-in-law’s home making them dinner. The family knew a tornado watch was in place but thought little of it until things got serious.

“When we saw the tornado warning, I said to my husband, ‘if a tornado hits, I'm packing up and going back to Spokane,’” Garrison said.

She spent part of her afternoon Wednesday cleaning up fallen tree limbs from the front yard, which she said was luckily the worst of damage to their property.

“It's good to know that this community is a community that you can really rely on and that the people here really do care about their neighbors and about one another,” Garrison said. “We've had so many people reach out to us to make sure that we're okay, you know, us just moving down here and making sure that, you know, the tornado didn't not only scare us, but didn't damage us.”

Across the street, 75-year-old Jerry Huggins grilled burgers and hot dogs for tornado victims and the volunteers helping out. He and others had been outside since about 10 a.m. and made 120 hamburgers and 50 hot dogs by the afternoon.

Huggins noticed everyone in town was offering a helping hand, even those whose own homes were going to need bulldozing, he said. One of the most important things his time as a chaplain with Guardian Hospice in Sherman has taught him: how to listen to people when they’re hurting.

“They're in shock with the loss,” he said. “There’s some fear because they don't know what they're going to do next … But they're really uplifted, you know, when they can come in and be around volunteers that tell them, ‘it's going to be OK. We don't know how, but it's going to be OK.’”

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Toluwani Osibamowo is a general assignments reporter for KERA. She previously worked as a news intern for Texas Tech Public Media and copy editor for Texas Tech University’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is originally from Plano.