They were watching football when the sky fell without warning, Dallas tornado survivors say

Angela Boston crawled to a closet with her daughters when wind and rain started to bear down on their home late Sunday night.

“There was no time for a warning,” she said Monday morning while surveying the damage to her home just north of Walnut Hill Lane.

The back of her house is gone.

The fence is in crumbles.

Tree limbs cover her front yard.

Boston and her family had just gotten home from the Texas State Fair when they decided to heat up some leftovers and sit down to watch the Dallas Cowboys game.

That’s when an EF-3 tornado fell from the sky, cutting a 20-mile path of destruction through north Dallas. The tornado struck near Love Field Airport about 9 p.m. Sunday and moved northeast through the city before hitting parts of Richardson and Garland. It was on the ground for about 40 minutes, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.

Boston said she had to quickly evacuate her home because a tree fell on her gas line.

“You could hear the gas and smell it,” she said.

She returned to her street Monday morning, and saw the damage in the daylight.

“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “It looks like a war zone.”

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson echoed the words of a lot of residents: “I think we should consider ourselves very fortunate that we did not lose any lives — no fatalities and no serious injuries — in last night’s storms,” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued a disaster declaration for 16 counties, including Collin, Dallas, Ellis, Hunt and Tarrant. The declaration will help communities with state resources and temporarily waive some regulations and let utility companies bring in resources to help, for instance, with restoring power.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a local declaration of disaster.

“We are asking residents to please stay away from affected areas unless you must be there to protect your own safety and allow first responders to their jobs as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.

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Residents survey damage after a tornado Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Northwest Dallas. Yffy Yossifor

‘You can replace a house’

Eight blocks south of Boston’s house, Alex Juarez and his neighbors were cleaning up what they could.

A tree fell on his house and several cars parked in the street. An uprooted tree filled his neighbor’s front yard.

He, like Boston, was at home watching the Cowboys.

“We heard popping and trees falling and then the windows broke,” he said. “The first thing we did was just drop.”

Boston’s and Juarez’s neighbors had similar stories: Most were at home watching football when “all of a sudden” the sky fell. They received little warning and hadn’t expected the worst.

“We got a warning on our cellphones but that was it,” Dennis Martinez said.

Rocky Vaz, director of Dallas’ Office of Emergency Management, said the office was notified of a tornado warning at 9:01 p.m. Sunday and all sirens were activated by 9:03.

Across the street from Martinez’s house on Kinkaid Drive, power lines wrapped around a black pickup truck. A giant hole could be seen in the roof of David G. Burnet Elementary.

The neighbors all have at least a third thing in common: They’re thankful they’re OK.

“You can replace a house,” Boston said.

“If you didn’t believe in miracles before, believe now,” she said.

In a neighborhood along Glenrio Lane north of Walnut Hill Lane, roofs were blown off homes and two-story townhouses were reduced to their first floor.

Residents dug through what was salvageable while trying to cut through fallen trees.

One woman, who didn’t give her name, said she feels unsafe digging through her friend’s destroyed townhome, but said she’s thankful no one was seriously injured.

Much of Walnut Lane was closed, causing traffic snarls. Dallas police blocked off several businesses along the road as fire and rescue crews worked in the area.

The Planet Fitness behind a CVS at Walnut Hill and Marsh lanes appeared to be gone. DD’s Discount is missing part of its roof. Across the street, boards covered the blown out windows at Velvet Elvis Lounge. In the parking lot, a truck carrying a trailer blew over and landed on a Jeep.

David Finto, who has owned Eagle Cleaners at 3720 Walnut Hill Lane for 30 years, said he arrived to the store early Monday morning. The floors were covered in gravel and water and the windows were boarded up.

Finto said he’ll be able to reopen when the power is turned on. But he’s not worried about that.

“This is my community,” he said. “I have customers who are now like friends who live here.”

Nearby, part of the roof and two air conditioning units were missing from Northway Church. Glass littered the grass and there was water damage inside the building.

But, like nearly everyone else in north Dallas, Pastor Jonathan Woodlief’s worries are not about the building.

“The church is the people,” he said.

The pastor has been making calls to members to see if they’re OK. Many of them were out in the neighborhoods to the north helping their neighbors clean up. Others were in the church’s parking lot handing out bottles of water and Gatorade.

Directly across the street, Edward H. Cary Middle School was in shambles. Power lines hung across the chain link fence that surrounds the school. Debris littered the front lawn and the roof over the front of the school was gone. The fire alarm was still sounding just before 12:30 p.m.

Dallas Stars player Tyler Seguin’s home near the Dallas North Tollway and Royal Lane was heavily damaged. Photos show the roof was blown off with debris strewn across the lawn.

“I am safe,” Seguin said on Twitter. “Luckily this is my house for sale and I have moved into a new one. I just left the area and it is an extremely sad sight to see. Prayers to everyone affected by the tornado.”

The Dallas Independent School District canceled classes for many of its northwest schools on Monday. Some without damage will reopen when power is restored.

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Businesses sustained damage after a tornado Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, near Walnut Hill Lane in Northwest Dallas. Yffy Yossifor
Tornado damage estimates

The National Weather Service confirmed three touchdowns: an EF-1 tornado in Rowlett with estimated maximum winds of 100 mph, an EF-0 tornado in Van Zandt County north of Wills Point with winds of 80 mph and an EF-3 tornado in North Dallas with winds up to 140 mph.

Looking at his damage, Finto said it’s hard to imagine the damage a stronger tornado could do.

Oncor told customers to prepare for possible extended outages of more than a day. Almost 60,000 customers were without power in Dallas County as of Monday afternoon; less than 4,000 in Tarrant were without power.

Field officers with Dallas Animal Services were patrolling areas affected by the storm searching for lost pets to help reunite with their owners.

Abbott’s disaster declaration included Tarrant County, although the majority of the damage was in Dallas County.

Officials said that in many cases, when a disaster strikes mostly in one county, adjacent counties are included in the disaster declaration to make sure any areas hurt by the storm — perhaps on the fringes of the area that was most affected — are eligible for government assistance.

So far, Tarrant County officials said they have had only scattered reports of damage such as fallen trees and fences.

“It looks like the storm that hit Dallas bounced over the top of Tarrant County,” David McCurdy, Tarrant County emergency management coordinator, said in a phone interview.

About 100,000 vehicles and “thousands of homes” were damaged on Monday, said Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas.

Although it may be Wednesday before the council has a damage estimate, Hanna said he is certain that it will be higher than the $1.2 billion in damages that occurred when a tornado struck the Garland and Rowlett areas on Dec. 26, 2015.

“You rarely have an event like this that stays on the ground going through a highly populated area for so long,” Hanna said. “So you know it did a lot of damage, and you know it hit some high-dollar homes and neighborhoods that are going to have massive insurance losses ... We’ve got a lot of commercial property that was heavily damaged, including a Home Depot, a couple of fire stations, a Talbots, a strip mall and some other manufacturing facilities. Literally thousands of claims have already been filed today.”

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Residents assess damage to homes after a tornado Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Northwest Dallas. Yffy Yossifor
How to get help

Hanna encouraged residents with damage to call their insurance companies immediately. He also warned them not to hire people who just “show up at their door” without researching their company and work.

Other companies have stepped up to help those affected:

Six U-Haul companies are offering 30 days of free self-storage and U-Box container usage to residents. People seeking more information about the 30 days free disaster relief assistance or needing to make self-storage arrangements should contact the nearest participating facility. Those facilities can be found on U-Haul’s website.

The North Texas Food Bank is collaborating with the Red Cross of North Texas and Salvation Army of North Texas to help with food assistance. Organizers have asked people who need food assistance to visit the food bank’s website.

The Salvation Army of North Texas is accepting donations on its website. Disaster trucks are heading to affected neighborhoods to serve meals and drinks.

Star-Telegram reporters Gordon Dickson and Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.
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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.