Fort Worth

Rio Vista man grabbed his dogs, held on for life during tornado


Albert Watts took cover under his bed, clutching his four Chihuahuas and praying for their lives to be spared.

Watts was in a mobile home in the Futrell Court neighborhood of Rio Vista, a potential target for a tornado that was moving slowly across southern Johnson County on Sunday night.

“I did a lot of talking to the man upstairs while I was under that bed,” said Watts, who had strapped himself to the base of the bed with a belt. “This mobile home was rocking and shaking. I thought it was going to go at any moment.”

The storm tossed debris all over his neighborhood during Sunday’s supercell outbreak that began about 3:30 p.m. in Comanche County and marched eastward, through Erath, Hood and Somervell counties before moving into the Rio Vista area.

A 50-mile path of storm damage could be seen across Johnson County — from near Cleburne State Park to Grandview, said Jamie Moore, Johnson County Emergency Management coordinator.

“Based on what I was expecting to see when we had reports of half-mile wide tornadoes across Johnson County last night, we were very fortunate,” said Moore, who flew over the area Monday. “There is damage, ranging from fairly minor to very serious but it’s not as bad as I expected it would be.”

Late Monday, survey crews confirmed eight tornadoes Sunday, including four in Rio Vista, the National Weather Service reported. The Rio Vista tornadoes were weak — as far as tornadoes go — wind speeds between 65 and 85 mph, the crews reported.

The tornadoes were reported between 3:33 p.m. and 11:19 p.m.

The tornadoes outside of Rio Vista were in Glen Rose, Dublin, Proctor and Sidney.

No injuries were reported.

Here’s a map showing the tornadoes.

‘Big and spinning’

Watts’ wife, Sandra, rode the storm out at a neighbor’s house and got a glimpse of the twister.

“I saw it from the flashes of lightning coming right toward us —it was big and it was spinning,” Sandra Watts said.

Damage was evident throughout the Futrell Court neighborhood.

The Watts’ detached garage had the roof ripped apart and the doors were blown out. Trees were blown over or stripped of their foliage. Behind Watts’ home an outbuilding was destroyed.

Near the Watts’ home, Charles Conklin had six people crammed into his closet. Like his neighbor’s, his mobile home shook and one of his windows popped out.

“But we were pretty lucky,” Conklin said. “Our place came through it OK.”

Behind his mobile home his aunt’s travel-trailer was reduced to a pile of rubble.

“They had been living there but left before the storm, thank goodness,” Conklin said.

While Watts’ mobile home survived the devastating winds, high waters from the 6 to 8 inches of rain that accompanied the tornado were causing other problems. The mobile home was sinking Monday morning as waist-deep floodwaters stood on his property.

“I paid off my land and now look at this,” Albert Watts said. “I fixed up everything and now I’ve got to deal with this. It ain’t pretty.”

Assessing the damage

Johnson County officials spent Monday assessing the damage, but the floodwaters were also making it difficult to reach some remote areas outside Rio Vista, population 509.

The Star-Telegram could not get a total estimate of the damage Monday night.

“We’re still trying to get out and get a look at the damage,” said Rio Vista volunteer firefighter Zack Prine. “We’re getting help from other volunteer fire departments to reach areas that the high water is preventing us from reaching.”

Bobby Schmitt took cover in his bathtub as his pier-and-beam house was slammed with strong winds.

“There was one point in time the roof was shaking and it was ‘here we go,’” Schmitt said. “My butt cheeks were getting tight.”

Schmitt’s house on the south side of Rio Vista was unscathed. Other nearby homes had tree damage in their yards.

East of town, highway crews worked Monday to quickly repair Farm Road 916, which was washed out by floodwater on Sunday evening, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said.

FM 916 was submerged as water from a creek overflowed, between Texas 171 and Texas 174. Television news footage on Monday morning showed the road’s top layer of pavement sheered off the bridge sub-surface like layers of a wafer cracker.

FM 916 bridge repair work was completed by about 5 p.m. Monday, said Val Lopez, an agency spokesman.

Schools canceled

The Rio Vista school district canceled classes on Monday, but planned to resume on Tuesday. The elementary school’s playground was damaged and some trees were lost.

Rio Vista High School baseball coach Brady Ribinskas spent Monday morning calling his players and surveying the damage from the storms.

“They’re all OK,” Ribinskas said. “Their homes may have some tree damage or roof damage but they’re all OK.”

When he saw the storms rolling in from his home in Mansfield, Ribinskas feared the worst.

“As far as I can tell, we’ve been lucky,” he said. “There have been some homes that have water in them or have some type of damage but it sounds like everybody came through it unharmed.”

Stephenville area hit hard

In Stephenville, residents were assessing the damage after a parade of storms that passed through the area over the weekend, beginning Friday.

The Erath County courthouse and other county offices have sustained “thousands of dollars in damage,” an emergency coordinator said.

“We have broken windows. We have broken skylights. I’m expecting the worst because baseball-size hail doesn’t do anybody any good,” said John Wooley, Erath County emergency coordinator

Wooley, who also serves as facilities director for at least a half-dozen county-owned buildings in Stephenville and Dublin, said officials were still assessing the damage Monday.

While no injuries were reported in Erath County, Wooley said there is “extensive damage” to automobiles in the area, he said.

“Mother Nature wasn’t too kind to us,” he said. “We had a cluster line of storms, three in a row, with ample rotations and ping-pong- to baseball-size hail.”

Many area residents felt lucky that they escaped much of the damage.

“I got some hail damage to my car. It’s bumps and dings,” said Daniella Thomas, who works at the Beans and Franks coffee shop near the Tarleton State University campus.

Church fire in Euless

The storms did pass through Dallas-Fort Worth late Sunday and early Monday, but they mostly produced lightning and rain.

Lightning may have ignited a fire early Monday at Euless First United Methodist Church, damaging the roof and parts of the sanctuary, said Euless fire Capt. Keith Smith.

The blaze was reported about 1 a.m. Monday at the Euless church, 106 N. Main. St.

No injuries were reported in the fire that took firefighters just a few minutes to extinguish, but they remained on the scene for hours to knock down any hot spots.

Firefighters from Bedford, Grapevine, Colleyville, Haltom City, the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and Fort Worth assisted on the fire.

The preliminary damage estimate was $50,000, fire officials said.

Staff writers Monica S. Nagy, Gordon Dickson, Domingo Ramirez Jr. and Lee Williams contributed to this report.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

North Texas tornadoes

Here's a look at some of the worst tornadoes that have hit North Texas:

April 7, 1957: Two tornadoes touch down in Dallas. The main tornado started in southern Dallas County and dissipated near Bachman Lake by Love Field. It killed 10 people and injured more than 200.

April 25, 1994: An EF-4 tornado strikes Lancaster, destroying more than 200 houses and 50 businesses, including flattening most of the historic core. It killed three people.

March 28, 2000: A tornado forms west of downtown Fort Worth and plows into the Bank One tower, leaving two people dead and a 3.5-mile path of wreckage from the edge of River Oaks to Sundance Square. Minutes later, another twister rampaged through south Arlington and Grand Prairie. All told, the two EF-3 tornadoes claimed five lives and caused $450 million in destruction across the county.

April 13, 2007: A tornado touches down near Sylvania Park just east of downtown Fort Worth and moves into Haltom City. The tornado was estimated to have wind speeds up to 110 mph and caused extensive damage and killed one person.

April 3, 2012: Seventeen tornadoes touched in North Texas and Central Texas. An EF-2 tornado hit Kennedale and Arlington, staying on the ground for more than 4 miles. At least 488 homes were damaged in southwest Arlington.

May 15, 2013: An EF-4 tornado, packing 180-mph winds, slams into the Rancho Brazos neighborhood outside Granbury, killing 6 and destroying most of the 120 homes in the neighborhood. Later that night, an EF-3 tornado with 140-mph winds cut an 8.5-mile-long path along Lake Pat Cleburne and into southern Cleburne. These were two of the 19 tornadoes that touched down that day across North Texas. The twisters caused an estimated $200 million in damage, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.

Sources: National Weather Service and Star-Telegram archives.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram