Weathering the worst

Following devastating tornado, students, staff who lost their homes work to get back on their feet

Jessica Pisana
Instructional coach Merilee Stone’s new house got destroyed by the tornado that hit Waxahachie. Stone had moved in only two weeks before the tornado struck.

When Merilee Stone moved into her new house in Waxahachie on Dec. 11, she was looking forward to making new, happy memories.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, she seemed on her way to just that. In their first few days in the house, Stone, her husband, and their two children began unpacking their belongings and setting about making their house a home — including hanging Stone’s decorative crosses in one of the interior hallways, a tradition she’s kept in every house she’s lived.

On Christmas day, as they finally settled into their new surroundings, 11 family members gathered at the Stones’ for gifts, food and festivities.

The following day, Stone readied dinner for the rest of the family, as the men gathered in the living room to watch the news. The kids played football outside, enjoying the unseasonably nice weather. It was a nearly perfect day-after-Christmas — until the unlikely sound of tornado sirens forced them inside.

Everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed to take cover in one of the home’s innermost areas.

“We were kind of just down at the end of the hallway in a little huddle,” Stone said. “You don’t really know what’s happening until you get up and look at it.”

Once the storm had passed, Stone’s house was all but destroyed. One of the only things left were her crosses, which still clung to the wall, overlooking the hallway where the family had taken shelter.

“When I walked down the hallway, I went to look in the kitchen, and I was looking at the backyard,” Stone said. “The craziest thing is in that moment, you don’t realize how bad it was.”

Stone’s house wasn’t the only one hit by the storm, which tore through Waxahachie, Midlothian and Glenn Heights on Dec. 26, bringing with it up to 180-mph winds.

The storm leveled two churches, Ovilla Church of the Nazarene and Harvest of Praise, along with severely damaging Red Oak ISD’s Donald T. Shields Elementary. In addition, several ROMS teachers’ and students’ homes were seriously damaged or destroyed.

“My roof almost peeled off the rest of my house,” 8th grader Miriam Rogowicz said. “In my kitchen, you can see the cracks in it. I have a broken window, and my fence broke. My trampoline got tossed into my neighbor’s yard.”

ROMS dance teacher Cathy Isaacks also experienced serious damage to her home. Her next door neighbor’s house was totaled.

“We really didn’t think it was going to be bad,” Isaacks said. “The lights went out, and it got really loud so we took cover. It was overwhelming. Scary and just shocking to see what it had done in such a short time.”

When the storm passed, the back section of Isaacks’ house was destroyed. Part of the roof caved in the next day, shortly after she had retrieved pictures and other personal mementos from the home.

Isaacks and her daughter, Sam, are temporarily living in a hotel while waiting for repairs on their home to be completed.

Not only were there at least 100 homes damaged in Ellis County, but at least half of those suffered serious damage or were destroyed completely, according to Ellis County Emergency Management. The damage to Shields Elementary caused the district to move students and staff to a new campus during reconstruction.

“My sister goes to school there, and I would have been very devastated if my sister and other students had been [at the school] during that time,” 7th grader Vivian Coronado said.

ROMS students who previously attended Shields Elementary were also upset knowing that their elementary school had been destroyed.

“It’s devastating, because you know that was your home at one point and now it’s all gone,” 8th grader Maddie McGregor said.

Although many people were upset over the damage done to Shields, Superintendent Scott Niven is optimistic about getting Shields Elementary up and running again. Currently, Shields students and staff are housed in the old junior high building on Live Oak.

“It’s my hope that we don’t run into any construction issues and that we can get Shields on Ovilla Road back up by the fall of 2016. I think it’s doable right now, based on what I know,” Niven said.

In addition to the school staff, those who worked at other destroyed buildings, such as Harvest of Praise Church, are feeling the loss, including Pastor Kevin Taylor.

“Well, the story behind this building is that I did 80 percent of the inside work, so it’s like my baby, and I was devastated to see that it was taken down,” Taylor told NBC DFW.

Although the tornado caused a lot of devastation, the Red Oak community worked to help those in need get back on their feet. In the days following the storm, Stone’s friends and family raised nearly $20,000 on gofundme.com to help the family offset the cost of losing their home.

“People were able to help in many different ways,” Stone said. “They gave money, food, clothes, they gave in any way they could. My family and I were very thankful for every way that they helped.”

Niven said he isn’t surprised by the community outreach. After all, he said, it’s just what Red Oak does.

“We’re not just a district,” he said. “We’re a family.”

 

Tornado safety tips

If you are at home

  1. Grab a portable radio for weather updates.
  1. Go to a windowless room (such as a closet, bathroom or basement).
  1. Go to the center of the room.
  1. Get under a sturdy piece of furniture (such as a workbench or a heavy table or desk) and hold on to it.
  1. Use your arms to protect your head and neck and have your back protect the rest of your body.

If you are outside

  1. If you can’t get inside, then find a ditch and use your arms to protect your head. You can also use a jacket to protect from debris if you have one.

If you are in a car

  1. If you can drive away safely, do so.
  1. If you can find a building, go inside.
  1. If there is no building, then pull over but leave the car running (so the airbags will work) and crouch down below the windows.
  1. If you do get out to hide in a ditch, then get far enough away from the car so that it will not fall on you if it is blown away.
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