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Seven Months After Deadly Tornado, Van Residents Share The Lessons They Learned

Lauren Silverman
A sign outside Main Street in Van, Texas, after the tornado in May.

After nine tornadoes hit North Texas over the weekend, what can people in Ellis, Dallas and Collin counties learn from folks who’ve lived through previous twisters? 

Survivors of last spring's tornado in Van, Texas, share some advice. 

The tornado tore through the small town, about an hour east of Dallas, on Mother's Day.

“Not much of a gift to my wife, that’s for sure," Ken Strom said.

He and his wife, Donna, hid inside a closet in the sewing room.

“It couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds before the tornado roared overhead and tore our house apart," Ken Strom says. "It left a few walls standing and fortunately where we were.”

The tornado leveled dozens of homes. Two people were killed.

Kenneth Meadows, the minister to students and education at First Baptist Church in Van, helped with recovery efforts earlier this year. He says the fear never really goes away. 

"Every time the clouds have rolled in since May 10th, that group of people have thought about what do I do if another tornado hits," he says. "I’m not sure they ever get completely over that.”

Meadows says he spent a half hour in prayer after he heard the news about Saturday's tornadoes in North Texas.

His first piece of advice – avoid disaster tourism.

“You can imagine if you’re a homeowner and your world has been turned upside down by a devastating tornado," Meadows says. "Do you want 300 strangers walking through your yard, or looking in your windows? No; you do not!”

Meadows says well-intentioned people can help in the recovery efforts by volunteering with nonprofits -- and by donating. First Baptist Church started receiving donations right away.

“So as quickly as we could, we began to get money into those people’s hands, we provided some cash early because they had expenses they were not planning on, eating out, moving back and forth,” Meadows says.  

Help also came from larger organizations – including the Salvation Army, Red Cross and FEMA.

Meadows says the rebuilding process was slow. Getting rid of debris isn’t as easy as hauling it all out on a trailer. There’s hazardous material to dispose of as well.

“It has just taken a while to rebuild their homes,” Meadows says. 

By Thanksgiving, some families were just getting settled in new homes -- more than six months after the storm. And as important as a new house is, Meadows says providing survivors with a safe space to talk about what happened is also part of the recovery.

“Letting them talk about the fear they had when the tornado was actually hitting their home," he says. "Giving them an opportunity to talk about it."

Elsewhere in Van, Bryan Shurgot is still trying to help his parents get money from FEMA to rebuild their home. Shurgot says after a tornado, make sure you keep records like utility bills and watch out for scams.

“You’ll also have people that will try to scam the government and say they were renting from you or staying with you to get money," he says. 

Shurgot also says be sure to make smart purchases, not on impulse, with what money you do get -- and save what you can.

Ken and Donna Strom, the couple who hid in the closet of the sewing room, decided not to rebuild their home on Washington Street. They’d been lucky and had insurance that helped them buy a new home.

Of course, they still needed help, with everything from doing laundry to finding furniture – and Ken Strom says no one in the eye of the most recent storm should be afraid to ask for assistance. 

“The help is there, and to not ask for it doesn’t give a lot of people the satisfaction of helping out," he says. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.