Habitat for Humanity spent years in a North Texas subdivision, helping build many of the 110 homes in the low-income area. But its work was largely undone during an outbreak of 16 tornadoes Wednesday night that killed six people and injured dozens.
On Thursday, authorities combed through debris in Granbury, while residents awaited the chance to see what was left of their homes. Witnesses described the two badly hit neighbourhoods as unrecognizable, with homes ripped from foundations and others merely rubble.
Granbury, about 65 kilometres southwest of Fort Worth, bore the brunt of the damage. The National Weather Service's preliminary estimate was that tornado had wind speeds between 267 and 329 km/h. Other tornadoes spawned from the violent spring storm damaged nearby Cleburne and Millsap.
"I tell you, it has just broken my heart," said Habitat for Humanity volunteer Elsie Tallant, who helped serve lunch every weekend to those building the homes in a Granbury neighbourhood and those poised to become homeowners.
Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry said Thursday he couldn't tell one street from another in Granbury's Rancho Brazos Estates neighbourhood because of the destruction. Half of one home was torn away while the other half was still standing, glasses and vases intact on shelves. Trees and debris were scattered across yards, and fences were flattened. Sheet metal could be seen hanging from utility wires.
Tornado was likely F-4
The weather service said the preliminary storm estimate for the Granbury tornado was an F-4, based on the Fujita tornado damage scale. An F-5 is the most severe.
Of the homes in the Rancho Brazos Estates, 61 of them were built by Habitat for Humanity, according to Gage Yeager, executive director of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth. He said most of those homes were damaged, including at least a dozen that were destroyed.
Raul Rodriguez was among the lucky few: His Habitat for Humanity home was still standing. The 42-year-old mechanic rode the storm out in a closet with his wife and three children. They heard the windows shattering outside but realized their fortune when they emerged to see a heartbreaking scene.
"Injured people, bloody people, started coming to our house, asking us to call 911," said Rodriguez, who has lived in the neighbourhood for more than two years. He assessed his own home, finding only shattered windows, lost roof shingles and a collapsed garage.
"My neighbours to the right, they lost everything," he said.
Habitat for Humanity homes, built for low-income buyers using volunteer labour and donations, are financed with affordable loans. The non-profit selects homeowners based on their level of need, willingness to become partners in the program and ability to repay their loan. Homeowners invest their own time into building the homes as well.
Habitat for Humanity volunteer Bill Jackson said the damaged or destroyed homes were insured and can be rebuilt. But that doesn't alleviate Tallant's pain. She'd gotten to know the people who had waited for years to become homeowners.
"We were going to dedicate a house this weekend, and her home was destroyed," she said.
Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said Thursday afternoon that two of the dead were women and four of them men; one man and one woman in their 80s.
"Some were found in houses. Some were found around houses," Deeds said. Six or seven people have not been accounted for, he said at a news conference.
"I'm very confident we'll find those people alive and well," Deeds said, adding 37 injured people were treated at hospitals. "We're going to keep looking. We're not going to give up until every piece of debris is turned over."
Late arrival for significant tornadoes
Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the weather service's severe storm lab in Norman, Okla., said May 15 is the latest into the month that the U.S. has had to wait for its first significant tornadoes of the year. Brooks said he would expect 2013 to be one of the least lethal tornado years since the agency started keeping records in 1954.
Earlier Thursday, about 20,000 homes and businesses in the region were without power. By the evening, it had dropped to nearly 3,500 homes and businesses.
Another tornado cut a mile-wide path through Cleburne on Wednesday, storm spotters told the National Weather Service. The weather service said it was estimated as an EF-3, which has winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said Thursday morning that no one was killed or seriously hurt in the city of about 30,000 some 25 miles southeast of Granbury. Nine people suffered minor injuries, and upward of 150 homes were damaged and another 50 were destroyed.
Cleburne resident Derrek Grisham, 26, said he ran to his mother's home to check on her and his 10-year-old son, who was staying with her.
"I had to kick in the front door to get them out," he said, explaining the two had taken shelter in a bathtub.
On Thursday, he went through his mother's damaged home, salvaging items before the home is likely torn down. The roof had been ripped off and he said her belongings were a jumbled mass, but crosses had stayed in place on the living room wall.