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'Is This Really Happening In December?' After Tornadoes, Survivors Share Their Stories

Paulette and Howard Rector of Garland had heard stories about the terrifying sound of a tornado, but they’d never heard it. Not until the day after Christmas.

“It’s just unbelievable how quick it happened,” Howard Rector said. “And the sound of the roar. The roar.”

Howard was in the bedroom. Paulette was in the living room watching TV. He saw threatening winds outside and yelled to her.

“He was saying come on and I heard something like a train,” Paulette Rector said. “And as soon as I did that I dropped the remote and I darted in the bathroom and that’s when everything went everywhere.”

Her husband said: “I seen that tree. When I helped her in that bathtub I seen that tree come through that bedroom.”

They survived. They’re staying at their son’s place nearby, and visited the Red Cross shelter in Garland, the Gale Fields Recreation Center, for items like a toothbrush and a coat. They left their apartment with nothing.

Officials say as many as 1,000 North Texas homes were damaged or destroyed from Saturday night's tornadoes. The National Weather Service says at least nine tornadoes ripped through the region. Garland was the hardest hit, as a powerful EF4 tornado hit the Dallas suburb with winds of up to 200 mph. Other tornadoes hit Rowlett, parts of Collin County and Glenn Heights.

Back in Garland, the Red Cross shelter will be Glory Murray’s home for the next few nights. In her apartment, she heard the same train sound and dashed into the pantry.

“Now my apartment wasn’t messed up, or so I thought,” she said. “But when we went on the outside, there was a big old thing sticking in the roof of my apartment, debris from off somebody else’s apartment. It was jabbed into the roof of my apartment just like a needle, but it was a big needle.”

Murray, who’s 68, would love to be back in her apartment but it’s not safe.

Nearby, in Rowlett, Sebrena Lowe reflected on a scary night. Ten relatives were at her house when the tornado threatened. They sought refuge in a laundry room. 

“We turned the TV on, and we looked at the news, and then everything went out,” Lowe said. “We all rushed into my laundry room, and I had a lot of family from out of town, so it was like 10 of us in one room. Actually, my husband and my father were outside, trying to see where the tornado was. Once they heard the whistling wind, they came running inside and we all were just devastated. Like, ‘is this really happening in Rowlett in December?’”

Lowe she was luckier than others, because of her faith. 

“We actually went outside and start commanding the winds, because God had given us authority over the winds, the airways,” Lowe said. “We just began to command this storm not to hit our area. We spoke to the storm and said go to unpopulated places. It did exactly what we said to do because God gave us authority to do that.”

Lowe and her family were taking temporary shelter at Steadham Elementary in Rowlett, about five minutes from her home. Their power was out, so the Lowes came to the school to charge their phones and eat.

'You could hear glass in the air'

Dan Halyburton is a public affairs volunteer with the American Red Cross. He was at the Red Cross shelter at Steadham Elementary in Rowlett. Halyburton said it would be difficult to tell how many people will need shelter tonight. 

"The situation could be that folks didn’t need a shelter last night – they thought they might be able to live in their home - but it’s getting colder now, and it’s raining, and you’re in that cold house with no electricity, and the roof is leaking," he said. "It could be that our shelter counts might very well go up tonight."

On Sunday, Steadham Elementary was still accepting people needing shelter, but could no longer accept donations. The shelter was sending people with donations to Connection Community Church (C3) in Rowlett, but the church soon became overwhelmed with donations.

Chris Rasco pulled donated clothes from a trash bag and sorted them. He's a volunteer at Connection Community Church in Rowlett.

He has lived in Rowlett for 18 years. This was his first tornado experience.

“I was hanging out under a bridge, as weird as that sounds,” Rasco said. “I was just hanging out with friends and we were going to have a bonfire. Then, we noticed the craziest dust storm we’d ever seen in our lives. You could hear glass in the air, so we bolted to the truck and just sat there. Basically watched it over the water, waited five minutes and just started driving and realized that everywhere to the east of us was obliterated.”

Disaster declaration declared

Governor Greg Abbott has issued a disaster declarationfor Collin, Dallas, Ellis and Rockwall counties as a result of Saturday night's tornadoes. 

Eleven people have died as a result of Saturday's tornadoes in North Texas. That includes eight people killed in automobile accidents in Garland at Interstate 30 and George Bush Turnpike. Garland police say at least three people were found in vehicles. Across Garland, 15 people were reported injured and 600 homes destroyed.

Rowlett, northeast of Dallas, was also hit hard. Rowlett City Manager Brian Funderburk says 23 people were injured, though the extent of the injuries is not known.

The National Weather Service has confirmedan EF4 tornado hit Garland. Damage in Rowlett indicates at least an EF3 tornado hit there. An EF4 tornado has wind speeds from 166 to 200 mph, while an EF3 tornado has wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph. In Collin County, the weather service also confirmed EF2 tornado damage in Copeville. As a result of the widespread damage, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins signed a local disaster declaration late Saturday night.

In Ellis County, 101 homes were affected by the storms. The county emergency management office reports about half were either destroyed or seriously damaged.

Though there are no reports of missing people, Rockwall residents have taken to Facebook to locate pets that went missing during the storm. The Rockwall Animal Shelter is taking in animals found.

Interviews: Survivors talk about the storms

Shelters set up

The American Red Cross has set up three shelters for North Texas residents affected by the storms.

Shelter locations:

  • Steadham Elementary School, 6200 Danridge Rd, Rowlett
  • Longbranch Elementary, 6631 FM 1387, Midlothian
  • Gale Field Recreation Center, 1701 Dairy Road, Garland

Tornadoes in December? It happens

Tornadoes in December are unusual, but they do happen in Texas -- about once every three to five years, according to Ted Ryan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

However, North Texas saw a strange mix of weather in just a few days: spring temperatures on Christmas, tornadoes the following day, and snowfall Monday. Is El Niño the cause? Ryan says yes and no.

“El Niño is a greater weather pattern that sets the table, if you will, on what kind of weather you’ll experience over several months. So you can’t really blame this one storm on El Niño,” Ryan said. “But what we have seen this fall and winter are these really powerful low pressure systems coming in off the Pacific, and this is another one. So I guess it’s fair to say that El Niño made the pattern favorable for this storm system to come in. What made it so bad was really just the interaction of the really cold air and the really moist air. That’s what produced all the violent weather.”

Damage updates

Workers in Rowlett were searching Sunday for people who may be trapped in damaged buildings. Mayor Todd Gottel shared some photos of his walk through some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.


I have been out with the City Manager to visually see the damage. The tornado swept across the city from the southwest... Posted by Todd Gottel on Sunday, December 27, 2015

Where the tornadoes hit 

The National Weather Service in Fort Worth sent out survey teams to Collin, Dallas and Ellis counties. 

Credit National Weather Service
Tom Bradshaw with the National Weather Service says some of the tornado reports may be multiples, so the actual number may be between 7 to 9.

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.
Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.