Tornado journalism

It’s been an especially vicious and tragic tornado season for the Great Plains and beyond. You’ve surely seen and read about the destruction in Tuscaloosa, Joplin and, now, as it comes out of greater Oklahoma City. Few disasters captivate us the way tornadoes do. We simultaneously marvel and cower at them. And with good reason. Some of the best, heart-wrenching stories come out of them, too.

The Jarrell tornado. Also, remember when gas was $1.12?

As I’ve been reading about these tornadoes, I couldn’t help but think back to my final story I wrote in my college (academic) career. For Bill Minutaglio‘s advanced feature writing class, we had to recreate an event in history. I chose to re-tell the story of Jarrell, Texas, on May 27, 1997. Then, an F5 tornado wiped out most of the small town right of I-35 just 45 minutes north of Austin. Twenty-seven people were killed.

So I decided to share my story, not out of look-at-me motivations, but as a reminder of the impact these twisters have on people and communities, and that we shouldn’t forget about Joplin or Tuscaloosa going forward.

Disclaimer: It’s long and part of it is slightly graphic. Oh, and it’s also unedited (it was for class!), so forgive the rough-around-the-edges quality of it. It begins after the jump.

—–

Interstate 35 is littered with towns just like Jarrell, Texas—small, unassuming hamlets that wouldn’t even be known outside of their 500 or so residents if it weren’t for the occasional road sign that declares: JARRELL, EXIT 275.

Other than that, they exist in relative anonymity. As cars barrel down I-35 heading south, Jarrell easily gets lost in the shuffle of names like Moody, Marlin, Bruceville, Eddy, Taylor, Florence, and so on and so on. Their only purpose to the ignorant driver is to serve as a geographical landmark. “Oh, there’s Jarrell. That means we’re almost to Georgetown, which means we’re almost to Austin.”

But unlike most of those other towns, which largely occupy vast ranchlands that begin miles away from the interstate, Jarrell hugs the six lanes of asphalt. Its main drag, North 5th Street, hits the southbound feeder road at a diagonal angle. “Downtown” occupies 10 square blocks that run from that dusty access road to the northeast for about a half mile before turning into another 10 blocks or so of neighborhoods.

From there, there’s not much of anything until you hit County Road 305 just northwest of downtown. As you head southwest along the two-lane road, you’re flanked by ranches and cattle on your right and a dozen or so mobile homes on your left. Outside of one of the double-wides, a Confederate flag waves proudly in the April wind while three men sit in lawn chairs underneath it drinking cold beer. The land has a stark feel to it, as if something’s missing, despite the colorful array of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes that dot the fields.

A little farther down the road lies Jarrell Memorial Park with its community center and two baseball fields, whose light poles are visible from the highway. Just north of that is a 19-home subdivision with plots for many more that sits on an “L”-shaped road and ends in a cul-de-sac. The houses are simple, none having more than three bedrooms. Some yards are neat and fenced off with horses grazing in the back. Others are untamed, with children’s toys, toolboxes and barbeque grills serving as a makeshift boundary. Oddly, almost all have a small concrete box protruding from the earth on some part of their property. Storm shelters.

There are several driveways off the road that curiously lead to empty lots. In the place of houses are piles of junk, scrap metal and extra stones left over from old construction projects.

It is Double Creek Estates. Thirteen years earlier, that sentence would have read “It was Double Creek Estates.” That’s when an F5 tornado barreled into the small town of about 800 at the time and put Jarrell simultaneously on and off the map.

While Texas is often associated with “Tornado Alley,” the brutal, Mother Nature-ravaged expanse of land that spans most of the Great Plains, that distinction usually applies more to the Panhandle and North Texas. Central Texas and towns like Austin and San Antonio rarely see funnel clouds in the spring sky.

But it seemed as if the gods had been saving all those would-be twisters for May 27, 1997. On that day, 20 confirmed tornadoes wreaked havoc from Lorena to Moore, a 200-mile stretch through the heartland of Texas, for 13 and a half terrifying hours. Yet Mother Nature saved her worst for Jarrell.

It took only 10 minutes to kill 27 people and destroy the lives of countless others.

****

James Blackmon peels down County Road 305 in his jet black police Camaro that “can hit 100 in a hurry.” Early voting just began in Jarrell and he’s headed to a familiar place.

He’s driven down the road a thousand times. He has lived in the town for the past couple of years, actually staying there when he’s not off with his dog chasing down drug bosses. He and his canine, as he refers to her, jump from town to town, job to job. In three days they’ll be meeting with the mayor of Nocona about a possible gig. Born in Palestine, he has lived and seen just about everywhere in Texas.

“Probably fixin’ to go somewhere else, too,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re just kind of floatin’.”

As he takes the left into the parking lot of Jarrell Memorial Park community center, where the Williamson County mobile voting unit has set up shop, a sense of dread wells up in his gut and spreads throughout his body.

He’s been here before.

As Blackmon opens the glass door to the community center, he glances at a small brown plaque mounted to the left of the entrance and the feeling rises again. The plaque doesn’t have the same stately feel as the historical markers found around Texas. No, it is simple white lettering on a brown background that explains that the center and accompanying ball fields were built on land donated by—and as a living memorial for—the Igo family. The Igos were five of the 27 killed in the twister.

Blackmon remembers it as clear as day. His voice, normally bouncy and with a strong Texas twang, takes on a serious, almost solemn tone when discussing the incident. As the police chief and a canine officer of Thrall, a tiny town of 500 just east of Taylor, back in 1997, he and his deputy knew the storm was coming. They listened to the police radio as the super-cell storm formed south of the Metroplex and made its terrible push southward. They heard about the F3 that hit west of Temple, destroying 10 homes and a gaggle of boats. They heard about the several others that danced in the sky at the southern end of Bell County.

Finally, they heard about Jarrell.

“We knew it was bad since we were on the same frequency as Jarrell,” he says. “We just didn’t have any idea of the degree of it ‘til we got here.”

****

Ted S. Warren didn’t think twice about the assignment. As a young photographer at the Williamson County bureau of the Austin American-Statesman, he jumped at the chance to photograph a storm capable of producing not just one tornado but dozens. He hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the clouds that day.

He sped up I-35. Hail and rain pelted his windshield as he made it through traffic. The farther north he got, the more cars he found stopped on the shoulder, lining the highway. Beneath underpasses, quivering crowds—not from the cold, but from fear—huddled together and collectively stole glances toward the north. The sky had grown almost pitch black. It didn’t quite feel like night but it felt just as ominous. He didn’t think he would find too much destruction, maybe some downed road signs or, if he were lucky, a roof blown off a barn.

Then, Warren saw it.

Just north of the exit for Jarrell, a slender, waving ribbon of black danced across open plains to the northeast. The funnel cloud was more intriguing than scary. More seductive than destructive, even though it was only a mile north of where he was.

“It looked like the biggest movie, on the biggest movie screen I had ever seen,” Warren said later. “For something so destructive, it almost seemed magical to watch.”

Warren sat entranced in his car until snapping out of it to realize he needed to take photos. He grabbed his camera and began shooting away. He was so engrossed in the photographs that he couldn’t even remember what the tornado sounded like until he watched video of it later on. Then he remembered the growing roar of the storm as it touched down and grew stronger and stronger with each passing second and each patch of barren earth.

“Yeah,” he said to himself, “that was the sound.”

The tornado had an animalistic quality to it. It breathed and pulsed. It curved and bent. It sagged and straightened, all as it barreled southward into Jarrell. The funnel widened gradually then abruptly became thin again. Suddenly, Warren’s viewfinder was completely occupied by a black swirling mass of cloud. It had become an F5 just as it reached County Road 305, just minutes after it had captivated Warren with its beauty.

Warren snapped three quick photos before jumping back into his car and racing north on I-35 at 85 mph.

“It just got too close for comfort,” he said.

In town, residents took shelter wherever they could. Virginia Davidson crouched in her bathtub, terrified, with a mattress pulled over her. Brothers John and Michael Ruiz fled from their mobile home to supposed safety at the Moehring’s place just south of Double Creek. Larry Igo looked out from inside his vintage car shop a mile away from his home and saw the funnel cloud barreling right toward him. He raced back down County Road 305, to be with his family where he thought he would miss the storm.

The tornado turned.

At first it had appeared to be heading directly for downtown. Now it shifted almost 90 degrees to the west, directly toward Double Creek. As it plodded toward the neighborhood, the twister widened to 3/4ths of a mile wide. Multiple vortexes whirled and spun within the storm, reducing everything in its way to worse than rubble within the span on five minutes. Concrete slabs were all that remained of the homes. Larry Igo’s prized classic car collection was nowhere to be found, the vintage Chevy Bel Aires and Corvettes tossed hundreds of yards away, beaten beyond recognition.

The tornado drove directly over Double Creek Estates, continued for a few hundred feet more before receding back into the clouds and heading toward Cedar Park to terrorize once again.

What was left of Double Creek Estates

In Jarrell, the damage had been done. The Ruiz’s, Moehrings, Igos and many others didn’t make it out alive. Davidson was one of the few lucky ones. Her husband found her in the middle of a muddy field, bruised and beaten after she had been sucked up by the twister in her bathtub and thrown about within the storm. She landed with a thud a hundred feet from her home. All she could say was, “Oh God. Oh God.”

****

The interstate had been closed at Round Rock. No one, not even residents of Jarrell whose houses had just been flattened, were allowed by. Blackmon and his deputy made their way into town through Georgetown as a part of a makeshift armada of Central Texas law enforcement. Officers and troopers from Bell, Williamson and Travis counties and beyond converged on the muddy, mangled remains of Jarrell.

“That was more law officers than I’d ever seen except for a large funeral,” Blackmon says, ignoring the irony of the statement.

Destruction after Jarrell tornado

Blackmon drove an old beat up Plymouth—the only squad car he could transport his canine in—down County Road 305 while his deputy followed in the cop-standard Crown Victoria.

As he slowly made his way down the road, the car jolted as if it had just gone off of a curb.

“I ran off the pavement and I said, ‘I know Jarrell is poor but this is ridiculous,’” Blackmon says.

It hadn’t—it had just run out of road. The tornado had peeled away 500 yards of County Road 305—digging 18 inches into the ground at places—leaving Blackmon and a fleet of law enforcement to make their way to Double Creek through a muddy mixture of debris and God-knows-what.

Minutes later he found himself right in the middle of God-knows-what with dozens of other officers. As the darkened sky slowly slinked away, Blackmon stood at the eastern end of where Double Creek estates once existed and locked arms with the men next to him. They formed a chain that stretched the full 3/4ths mile path of destruction the twister had carved out. Slowly, they began to walk. They looked for any sign of life. More often, they found pieces of death.

Blackmon’s foot nudged a dark red mass tangled with mud and grass. He bent down to look, thinking it was a dead animal, at worse maybe part of one of the cows that had been prematurely butchered by the storm.

“It wasn’t,” he says and his voice lowers to just slightly above a whisper. “It was a female body. I still have a hard time talking about that. It was real bad. I never saw nothing like that in my life.”

It wasn’t the only disturbing discovery he would make. The storm, which has been called one of the most violent storms in history with winds up to 260 mph, methodically shredded everything in its path. The vortex sucked up humans, buildings, livestock, cars, farm equipment and asphalt, forming an aerial blender that rendered most of the victims’ bodies unidentifiable without extensive forensics.

“It sandblasted everything,” Blackmon says. “The bodies were just red. Just red.”

Other strange sights made the area feel like another planet. Dozens of blank foundation slabs with plumbing bent 90 degrees with the direction of the tornado littered the field. Wooden stakes were driven through telephone poles. Cows were impaled by corn stalks.

After more than eight hours out in the field, Blackmon couldn’t take it any more. He slowly walked back to the Plymouth, parked at what used to be Clawson Disposal. His canine was still sitting in the back seat. He let him out. The dog jumped down from the squad car, paused, gazed at the still pitch-black storm clouds off the south and laid down for a moment with a whimper. He then got up, growled at Blackmon and jumped back into the car.

“He wouldn’t come back out of the car, I’ll tell you that,” he says.

As he started the old, grumbling engine, he motioned to other officers and troopers to jump on and hitch a ride. Before he knew it, 13 police officers crammed onto the car, sitting on the hood, roof, trunk—everywhere. He turned on the overhead lights and headed back up County Road 305. They passed the horrified faces of residents who couldn’t find their loved ones. They passed the volunteer fire department that was serving as a makeshift morgue. They passed the church, overflowing with people searching, frantically, for information. They finally reached downtown. The officers departed and Blackmon took a deep, slow breath.

“Oh, God,” he said. “Where is the dignity in this at all? I just can’t comprehend this at all.”

****

Blackmon finally enters the community center. Dave White greets him with a hearty “Hello.” Debbie Helms, sitting with White behind a folding table, says enthusiastically, “Are you ready to vote?”

“I s’pose I am,” Blackmon says as he saunters over toward the table and looks for a place to sign his name on the registration sheet.

After a few minutes of small talk, the conversation turns to the tornado. White, who didn’t even move to Jarrell until five years ago, had even heard about it while living in California. Relatives who lived in Central Texas sent him grainy pictures of the destruction. Wooden boards driven through trees. Mangled cars. You know, the usual.

“Man, that was crazy,” White says, shaking his head.

Helms chimes in on the conversation. A longtime Georgetown resident, her husband is a ham radio operator. He headed down to Jarrell after the storm to help operate the airwaves since most of the town’s communications were knocked out.

“It was a bad, bad storm,” Helms says.

“Yes, yes it was,” Blackmon agrees. “It was a badass F5. It wasn’t messing around—So, where do I vote?”

Helms leads Blackmon to the back of the empty room to one of three electronic voting machines. About 50 voters have turned out to cast their ballots so far, an impressive number for the small town.

“It’s been a great turnout,” Helms says.

The incumbent mayor is Troy Clawson, the brother of Al, who’s disposal company was destroyed during the tornado and served as the makeshift police headquarters that Blackmon and so many others passed through. He’s being heavily challenged—easily shown by the hundreds of signs dotting the lawns of Jarrell—by Dewey Hulme, the president of the Jarrell Economic Development Corporation, and Bill Gravell, the pastor of the Sonterra Fellowship Church who moved to town in 2006. The race sums up the changes going in Jarrell.

Thirteen years ago, people passed the city without second thought. Now the exit to town is marked by a pair of huge, state-of-the-art truck stops, complete with a Denny’s and Subway. A brand new McDonalds sits next to them. A little further off the interstate lies the brand new Sonterra development that has houses “from the $90s!” for sale, and also is home to Gravell’s church. All of this development is happening on the east side of I-35, away from downtown, away from Double Creek and the mobile homes with Confederate flags, away from the city’s history.

With Clawson, the 1,400 residents can choose to go with tradition and, in a way, the legacy of the tornado. With Hulme and Gravell, they can plunge full-on ahead into a future of strip malls and fast food, but with the risk of losing track of the history of the town.

But for those who still call the west side of I-35 home, they can never forget what happened May 27, 1997.

“But how can they? We’re standing in it,” Blackmon says after he steps out of the voting booth. “People are real strange about that. They don’t want to be remembered for a famous tornado.”

Blackmon opens the glass door, waves and says goodbye to White and Helms and slowly walks to his Camaro. He pauses, looks back to where the tornado hit, bows his head, and finally enters his car. He backs out of the parking space before gunning the throttle and speeding up County Road 305 one more time.

Note: I’d be remiss not to mention what resources I used to research this story. The Austin American-Statesman covered the hell out of it and had a wonderful special report for it for the five-year anniversary. http://www.statesman.com/e/content/specialreports/jarrell/0526jarrail.html

I interviewed James Blackmon in person. I just lucked into meeting him at the voting station, where I happened to be awkwardly hanging out, hoping someone would talk to me that remembered the tornado. It turned into one of the best interviews of my life.

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