‘It was like there was something bad in the house that wouldn’t get out’

Posted Saturday, Jun. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Jeff Dugger knew it was coming.

He had seen the hook echo on television. Then the power went out and the wind started howling.

Seconds later, the windows in his home blew out. The abrupt change in pressure caused his ears to pop so suddenly that he checked to see whether they were bleeding.

Dugger, his wife and one of their four children lay down in the kitchen as the tornado came and seemingly left, only to return again.

“It was like there was something bad in the house that wouldn’t get out,” he said.

As he nervously watched to see whether the kitchen ceiling would hold, Dugger heard furniture being thrown around the living room and debris being sucked out of the house.

“You hear about a tornado hitting a house, but you don’t think about it just coming in and staying,” Dugger said. “It got right out here in this living room, and it didn’t move.”

The National Weather Service said an EF3 tornado, packing 140-mph winds, slammed into Dugger’s Cleburne neighborhood May 15.

The tornado, which was a mile across at its widest point, touched down southwest of Lake Pat Cleburne, then barreled northeast along the ground for 8.5 miles. It cut across the southern half of the lake and lifted before it reached Yellow Jacket Stadium.

It was one of 18 twisters that touched down across North Texas, including one near Granbury that killed six people.

The deadly tornadoes in the Granbury area and in Moore, Okla., have captured most of the news media’s attention in recent weeks, but Dugger and other Cleburne residents aren’t complaining about being overlooked.

“We’re the lucky ones,” Dugger said. “For the people out here, it was a bad inconvenience. Nobody was hurt. Most people were insured. We are blessed, blessed beyond measure.”

The Cleburne tornado damaged about 600 homes; 72 ended up with “extreme damage or total loss,” Mayor Scott Cain said. At least 50 of those will likely have to be razed.

Dugger’s neighborhood along the southeast part of the lake was hit hardest, with many homes losing roofs and sustaining other structural damage.

Homes in subdvisions in southwest Cleburne had roof damage. Three schools also sustained damage, and many trees were lost or stripped of their foliage.

“I don’t think people realize the amount of devastation that was here,” Cain said. “And I think part of that is because we were fortunate not to lose any lives or have serious injuries.”

‘Our guardian angel’

That no one died in Cleburne can be attributed to plenty of warning, from news reports and from the city’s CodeRED early warning system, Cain said. It also helped that the tornado dissipated before reaching more densely populated areas.

“We were very fortunate the storm actually lifted before it got to the Winchester addition, or we could be looking at a situation similar to Granbury or Moore,” Cain said, describing a densely populated subdivision in the south of the city.

After the storm passed, Dugger said, his neighborhood near the 1,500-acre Lake Pat Cleburne “looked like a bomb had gone off.”

Roofs had disappeared. Houses were crumpled, including Dugger’s next-door neighbors’.

“I thought I was going to have to pull them from their home,” he said. The couple rode out the tornado unharmed in a closet with their dog.

Outside, Dugger’s 2012 pickup was totaled, pummeled by a 150-pound birdbath.

Amid the destruction, he found a Christmas angel his daughter made 18 years ago, wedged into a tree in his front yard. It’s still there, now serving as a symbol for the storm.

“We just nailed it up there and called it our guardian angel,” Dugger said.

Dugger said he is working to get a roof back over his house and then will deal with rebuilding inside.

Rebuilding will take time

All over southwest Cleburne, crews are cleaning up debris and starting the slow process of putting homes back together.

Some of the hardest-hit homes in Dugger’s neighborhood have already been framed again, so roofs can go back up shortly. In other neighborhoods, homes are standing covered in blue tarps.

Many areas still bear the scars of the destruction: Piles of tree limbs and house insulation are still stacked along curbs. The cleanup has been helped by waves of volunteers and assistance from neighboring cities.

At one point, Dugger said, 75 volunteers were cleaning up debris at his home. Fort Worth sent debris-removal trucks to help.

Although construction workers are scrambling all over the lakeside neighborhood, the mayor said repairs won’t happen overnight.

“I think you’re looking at a minimum of six months to a year,” Cain said. “I think it’s going to take an entire year to raze these homes and then replace them.”

Like Granbury, Cleburne did not qualify for a presidential disaster declaration.

Cleburne has spent about $300,000 in cleanup costs, which could eventually climb to $500,000, Cain said.

The city hopes to qualify for state grants that could cover as much as $350,000 but will pay for the rest through contingency funds.

Residents and businesses can also qualify for low-interest Small Business Administration loans.

‘A great effort’

Across the street from Dugger’s home, Jon Stiver, a home builder and remodeler, was in much better shape than many of his neighbors.

His custom-built home had hurricane ties — components that help make structures more wind-resistant — and for the most part, his roof held.

Some of it is covered by a blue tarp, but most of his clothes and dishes were unscathed. Other items inside were ruined.

“Bedding, pillows, rugs — everything with fabric has glass imbedded in it,” Stiver said as he strolled around his property, an unlit cigar in his mouth.

For now, he is living at his mother-in-law’s house in Cleburne but plans to put a travel trailer in his driveway shortly. He and his wife will live there while their house is repaired.

Like his neighbor, Stiver was overwhelmed by the response from residents.

“The people in Cleburne knew, and they were all here,” Stiver said. “They all came out to clean. Several restaurants here and in Godley came here and served us. It was a great effort.”

Even though he came through the storm better than most of his neighbors, Stiver said, he will now add the type of storm shutters normally seen in hurricane-prone regions to protect his windows.

He will also make one significant addition outside his home. On the other side of the driveway, he has plans for an underground storm shelter.

“The next time one of these comes through, I’m not going to be above ground,” Stiver said. “I guarantee you that.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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