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4-4-12: In Arlington and Kennedale, devastation is mixed with relief

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 04, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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After an afternoon like Tuesday's, it would seem OK to now say whew.

Fierce midday thunderstorms in North Texas spawned as many as 10 tornadoes that ripped off roofs, yanked down trees and flung vehicles around.

Most of the storms' power was concentrated in southwest Arlington, where emergency crews searched homes for residents and dealt with ruptured gas lines and downed power lines, and in Lancaster, a suburb south of Dallas where dazed homeowners were assessing damage.

According to preliminary estimates, more than 100 homes in Arlington, about 50 homes and five businesses in Kennedale and 300 homes and businesses in Lancaster were significantly damaged.

But given the raw intensity of the storm cells and their reach through a dozen counties, it is remarkable that no deaths were reported. Seven people in Arlington and 10 people in Lancaster were injured, as was one woman in Kennedale who had been in a mobile home that was destroyed.

"We are only seeing minor injuries, which is amazing with a storm of this magnitude," said Lt. Darrel Whitfield of the Arlington Fire Department.

And the damage, while distressing, seemed imminently recoverable. The Insurance Council of Texas, an Austin-based industry group, said it was too early to estimate the damage to insured property.

Still, the scope of the storm was breathtaking, even for veterans of Texas springs.

At various points, meteorologists and forecasters warned of tornadoes spotted in the air or on the ground in Joshua, Kennedale, Arlington, Lancaster, Dallas, Mesquite, Carrollton, Addison, Royse City and Forney.

After tornadoes killed hundreds of people in Kentucky, Alabama and Missouri in the past year, North Texas schools, universities, businesses and government offices ordered people into secure areas to ride out most of the long afternoon. That may well have made a major difference in the storm's toll.

"The fact that [the tornadoes] came during the middle of the week and middle of day when people could take appropriate action probably saved countless lives," said Eric Martello, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth. "If it had been overnight, it could have been a lot worse."

Arlington

In Tarrant County, the tornado appeared to move northeast across Kennedale, then into neighborhoods in Arlington near Interstate 20 and U.S. 287.

About 100 homes were damaged in the Oldfield neighborhood, south of West Pleasant Ridge Road. Some 25 to 30 more were damaged in neighborhoods between U.S. 287 and Southwest Green Oaks Boulevard.

Across Pleasant Ridge Road, Ben Blackshear and his wife, Pamela, surveyed what remained of their home. Pamela Blackshear had been there, on the telephone with her daughter until just before the tornado hit.

"It sounded like a really strong whistle," Pamela Blackshear said. "It was hard to hear because the sirens were going off at the same time, and the dogs were barking. We just laid on the floor. Then we heard glass shattering and the roof came off the house."

When her husband got home, he found their roof across the road near a church.

"I put my blood, sweat and tears into this house," Ben Blackshear said. "I remodeled everything. It took me 15 years, and it was gone in 15 seconds. Oh my God."

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck signed a disaster declaration, stating that the city had "determined that extraordinary measures must be taken to alleviate the suffering of people and to protect or rehabilitate property."

The declaration paves the way for the city to seek state or federal financial assistance.

Cluck planned to tour damaged areas with Fire Chief Don Crowson after Tuesday evening's City Council meeting. But he was clearly relieved that he was only having to talk about property damage.

"We fared remarkably well," he said. "There was a chance for mass pandemonium, lots of injury, lots of death. Luckily, no one was seriously injured."

John Smith watched the tornado from his third-floor balcony in southwest Arlington, videotaping it as it touched down and rose back up, zeroing in on a school at St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. There, his girlfriend and young son were inside.

At the church, Amy Richardson, director of the Early Education Center, shepherded 82 children, ranging from toddlers to 5-year-olds, from their classrooms to a safer spot in the middle of the building.

"We knew what we had to do. We had a plan for it," Richardson said. "We just waited. We had pastors coming in to tell us when to duck and cover. There was a loud rumbling noise, the walls starting shaking and windows started breaking.

"But the kids were very calm. Some of them got upset when the power went out."

Water began to pour into the sanctuary because the tornado had ripped away the roof in another part of the building. But the children were safe.

"Our plan worked," Richardson said. "It's nice to have a plan."

The tornado seemed to target Dauphine Court, a cul-de-sac less than a half-mile away. Heather Schulz and her 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, were in their home at the end of the street.

Schulz tracked the storm on TV as it barreled in her direction. She put Hannah in a bathtub and looked out her front window.

"I saw it coming at us from the end of the street," she said. "It looked like just a bunch of wind circling. I expected it to veer off in another direction, but it didn't. That's when I jumped into the tub on top of Hannah and our little Yorkie. We were just praying. You could hear the cracking, popping."

As the storm passed over, Hannah bit her thumb until it bled. Less than a minute later, there was silence. Schulz's home sustained minor damage: shingles ripped off and mature trees snapped in two. Several other houses on the street were mostly destroyed.

At the Green Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a portion of the roof of one wing collapsed, and two people were hospitalized with minor injuries.

Kyle Coleman, the center's administrator, said nearly 200 people, including 131 residents, were inside as the storm approached. They gathered in the center of the building when the door to the dining room blew open and the glass shattered, he said. Then he felt a vacuumlike force pull on him.

"I don't know if it sounded like a train, but it was definitely a feeling that I've never felt before," Coleman said.

About 35 of the residents were moved to other facilities, some of them taken out in wheelchairs or on gurneys, said Jim Self, Arlington's assistant fire chief.

Two buildings at the Chesterfield Apartments on Median Way had severe damage, the Police Department reported.

Near U.S. 287 and Sublett Road, Christina Malenfant came home to find that her house no longer had a second story.

"We're missing animals," she said tearfully as relatives and neighbors worked to salvage clothing and other items from piles of debris strewn across the yard. "Six cats and two dogs."

The home on Colebrook Trail was among the hardest-hit in the area. Parts of it slammed into a house across the street where Joan Campbell had sought refuge in a bathroom. She was unharmed, although the roof bore a large gash.

"Stuff was hitting the house," she said. "I didn't know what was going on. I was so scared to even leave the bathroom."

Craig Beckett, a railroad flagman taking a nap on his day off in his home in Arlington, awakened to the storm's noise and headed for a bathroom without windows. He hunkered down in the bathtub, heard part of his roof ripping off and felt himself being sucked up.

"I saw debris and trash shoot straight skyward," he said. "I knew it was a tornado. ... It took some force to open the bathroom door, like someone was pulling from the other side.

"Like everyone says, 'It sounds like a freight train.' Well, I'm a rail worker and it sounded like 10 freight trains."

The Salvation Army established a shelter at 712 W. Abram St. in Arlington, setting up 200 cots. Capt. Andy Miller said 30 people would spend the night there Tuesday.

Kennedale and elsewhere

In Kennedale, three mobile homes on New Hope Road were destroyed, as were several businesses at Tower Drive and East Kennedale Parkway, Police Chief Tommy Williams said.

"It looks like the tornado hit a house here and a house there, and then skipped over most of Kennedale," he said.

Rick Edwards, associate superintendent of Kennedale schools, was similarly grateful.

"There has been no damage to any of our buildings," he said. "We saw the tornado. It went right between Patterson Elementary and the high school buildings."

As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, 15,000 customers in Tarrant County and 18,000 in Dallas County were without electricity, according to Oncor Electric Delivery, which operates most power lines in the region.

In all, more than 40,000 customers in Oncor's service area were without power.

By 9 a.m. Wednesday, Oncor said a little more than 7,000 were still without power in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar said the utility called in dozens of crews from Central and West Texas and worked through the night.

Before the storms moved into Tarrant County, they hit Johnson County. A tornado believed to be a mile wide touched down on the east side of Joshua, from Keene to Trail Head Drive, Joshua Fire Department Battalion Chief Russ Bassham said.

Grand Prairie firefighter Branten Rose, who lives in Joshua, said he stepped outside his front door about 12:45 p.m. Tuesday and saw the tornado. The funnel lifted up just before it got to his Joshua Meadows neighborhood, right behind Joshua High School, Rose said.

Johnson County Sheriff's Lt. Tim Jones said that four homes in the county were so severely damaged that they cannot be lived in, with roofs torn up and debris embedded in walls. A family hid inside one home when the storm hit.

"We're very blessed not to have any injuries," Jones said.

The storm was the worst to hit Arlington since March 2000, when twin twisters swept through Tarrant County in the early evening. One tornado killed people in a 3.5-mile swath from the edge of River Oaks to downtown Fort Worth.

Another tornado smashed Arlington and Grand Prairie, damaging hundreds of homes. Together, the storms claimed five lives and caused $450 million damage across the county.

Staff writers Andrea Ahles, Sandra Baker, Darren Barbee, Deanna Boyd, Alex Branch, Steve Campbell, Bob Cox, Terry Evans, Jim Fuquay, Shirley Jinkins, Tim Madigan, Mitch Mitchell, Susan Schrock, Barry Shlacter, Anna M. Tinsley and Patrick M. Walker contributed to this report.

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547; Twitter: @CVaughnFW

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