Hood County tornado survivors begin long journey back

Posted Friday, Jun. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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How to help • Trinity Habitat for Humanity is looking for groups and individuals 18 and older to help the Hood County chapter rebuild homes starting June 26. Those who are interested can email volunteer.department@trinityhabitat.org or call 817-926-9219. People can also sign up directly: trinityhabitat.volunteerhub.com/SignIn.aspx • For information on Granbury’s long-term recovery, including where to donate, go to www.granburytornadorecovery.org

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As a tornado was bearing down on the Rancho Brazos neighborhood a month ago, Trica Hill had no clue what was about to strike.

She was watering the flowers on her front porch May 15 when her 22-year-old daughter called from Alvarado, warning her to take cover.

She went inside, made a quick call to her mother, Gene May, and hid in the hallway with her 20-year-old daughter and her 86-year-old former mother-in-law as the storm intensified.

Two blocks away, May was watching the approaching storm from the front door of her mobile home when Hill called. The Elvis Presley movie Paradise, Hawaiian Style played in the background.

As May grabbed her dog and crawled into a tiny hallway closet, she thought: “This is a trailer house. It’s going to go away and we’re going to go with it.”

When the EF4 tornado struck, a terrified Hill, 40, begged God not to take her life. Two blocks away, her 58-year-old mother was unusually calm.

“I just knew this was happening. There was nothing I could do about it,” May said. “I knew I wasn’t going to die. I knew it.”

Not everyone in the Rancho Brazos neighborhood was as fortunate. Six people, including one of May’s neighbors, were killed. It was one of 19 tornadoes that struck North Texas that day and a precursor to the deadly tornadoes in Oklahoma days later.

Since that day a month ago, Hill’s life has been a blur. She didn’t get back into her neighborhood for days, living first in a motel and now in a rental house in Acton, a few miles away.

“I’ve been working and trying to stay focused, but it will never go away,” Hill said.

Scattered residents

Across the Granbury area, residents like Hill are trying to put their lives back together while making long-term plans to rebuild their homes.

In Rancho Brazos, most of the debris is gone. But much of the neighborhood is still stripped of vegetation, and many slabs are bare.

There is the occasional sound of hammering and sawing as some of the less seriously damaged homes are repaired.

Hood County officials said 258 homes were damaged. Of those, 157 were destroyed or had major damage. Almost all were in Rancho Brazos.

Of those 157 homes, 59 were built by Habitat for Humanity in Rancho Brazos and have homeowners insurance. Many of the remaining homes are uninsured or underinsured, said April Mitchell, executive director of Mission Granbury, which is helping with the recovery.

“There are several places that are collaborating to ensure a speedy recovery,” Mitchell said. “We are prioritizing the ones that are underinsured or uninsured. The goal is to get them back in their homes.”

Hood County didn’t qualify for state or federal disaster assistance, so groups like Mission Granbury, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and several other church groups are picking up the slack.

At St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Granbury, 18 former Rancho Brazos residents are living in the educational building, with classrooms converted into a makeshift dormitory. They are expected to stay until their homes are rebuilt, church spokeswoman Julie Lyssy said.

Others are living in apartments, hotels or rental houses or with relatives. But low-income residents who were renters may have difficulty finding a new place to live because the area has a shortage of low-income housing, Mitchell said.

For some, the goal is to be back in their homes in six to 12 months. For others, it may take two years.

Hood County Commissioner Jeff Tout, whose precinct includes Rancho Brazos, said about 90 percent of the debris has been removed from the neighborhood. Hood County plans to pull the Dumpsters out June 24.

Tout said the cost of debris removal will affect the county’s bottom line and force it to tap the reserve fund. But the county has enough to survive.

“It has crippled us, but it hasn’t devastated us,” Tout said.

Habitat for Humanity of Hood County will start rebuilding one Habitat home June 26 with the help of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth. That home was damaged by the tornado and was originally scheduled to be dedicated May 18. Construction is scheduled to begin July 10 on two other Habitat homes.

“We are excited to be rebuilding,” said Carol Davidson of Hood County Habitat for Humanity.

A fresh start

Hill had lived in a Habitat home since 2009.

It was so heavily damaged that it will be torn down to the frame. Then a structural engineer will see whether that is still sound. She is relieved that Habitat requires insurance with its homes.

“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have insurance,” Hill said. “We would be in a bad situation. Thank God it’s included in the house payment.”

Hill’s mother wasn’t as lucky. Her trailer was destroyed. All that stands now is the foundation and the stone steps that once led to the front door.

With her mobile home gone, May has moved into her daughter’s rental house. She plans to live with her when Hill’s house is rebuilt.

“I always planned to live with her someday,” May said. “I think God said: ‘I’m going to move in with her now.’”

After the tornado hit, Hill and her mother were consumed with finding each other.

“I just kept thinking her trailer is gone,” Hill said. “I just knew she was going to be dead.”

She walked outside and saw a neighbor covered in blood. Then she started crawling over downed power lines and debris.

Finally, she saw her.

“I looked up the hill and there she was walking down the hill with her dog,” Hill said. “She says I was jumping up and down as I was saying, ‘We’re alive! We’re alive!’

For mother and daughter, the loss of property matters little. Before the storm, both were struggling to pay the bills.

“It’s like a fresh start,” Hill said. “It’s brought us closer together. We have each other.”

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

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