Nightmarish scenes in cyclone’s aftermath
By Nylan Holifield
The morning of April 22, 2020, started off as any other morning during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was home from college because all in-person classes had been canceled in the wake of the spreading pandemic. My wife, Kim, and my mother-in-law, Donna, were also home that day. Donna had recently been to a doctor’s appointment, and a few days later she was notified that her doctor had tested positive for the dreaded coronavirus. Since my wife works in an assisted living home and since she lives in close contact with her mother, she was forced to self-quarantine at home for two weeks before she could return to work. So, as fate would have it, we were all at home that Wednesday afternoon. Little did we know that our lives would soon be turned upside down when an EF3 tornado swept through our small East Texas town and left a trail of devastation in its wake unlike anything we had ever seen.
The sky was somewhat overcast that afternoon with frequent bursts of bright sunlight peeking through the clouds, and it was very warm and quite breezy. My wife and I were spending some time out in the backyard entertaining our two small dogs, Morton and Maggie, and our mallard duck, Plucky. During these COVID lockdowns, it was important to get out and find different ways to exercise and stay active since we were not going about our usual busy routines. While tossing around a Frisbee with the animals, we began to notice how windy it was getting. Playing Frisbee in the wind is a pointless endeavor as we soon discovered. After a while, we decided to go back inside to bathe the dogs and take showers before making dinner and watching a movie.
Not long after we were all done with our showers, I received a weather alert on my phone. It informed me of a tornado warning in the Riverside/Huntsville area, which is not very far from where my mom lives, so I sent her a text warning her to be on the lookout for bad weather. At the time, we lived in Onalaska, which is about 30 minutes away from the Riverside/Huntsville area, so I did not think it would affect us too much. It was during these moments that my wife noticed how dark the clouds were getting in our own area, and she decided to go ahead and bring Plucky inside to let him swim in the bathtub. We both walked out into the front yard and stood by the tailgate of our truck while we watched the darkening sky. I contemplated moving the truck underneath the overhang of the shed that sat next to the house but ultimately decided against it. This turned out to be a wise decision.
As we were gazing across the road into the sky above the tree line, two giant dark clouds began to move toward each other, and I commented on how strange it appeared. Just seconds later, Kim noticed some debris swirling about between the clouds in the distance, and she said, “That’s a tornado! We need to get inside right now!” The sound of the wind grew steadily louder, and we hurried to our front door. Right before I went inside, I looked back and saw trees whipping and bending. My mind was racing as we got inside, and I slammed and locked the door. My mother-in-law Donna did not know what was happening, and she went to open the door to have a look outside when my wife said, “Don’t open that door! There’s a tornado!”
They each went into the hallway to take shelter away from any windows, and as a last thought, I grabbed two couch cushions to use as shields against any falling objects or flying debris. During our panic, the electricity shut off, and everything went dark. The sounds of the house were silenced and replaced by the hair-raising screams of ravaging winds. Fear filled my stomach, and I heard the terror in my wife’s voice when she asked for a flashlight. I looked around the kitchen for a few seconds, but I could not find anything, so I ran into the hall, tossed the cushions to the side, and crouched down on the floor as low as I could get. I wrapped my arms around my wife’s waist and locked my hands together, and she held onto her mom on the other side. The wind outside became a thunderous, deafening roar, almost as if a freight train was plowing toward us. My wife was screaming, and I was praying silently as the foundations of the house began to shake. Things began to crash and shatter, and glass and drywall began to rain down on the top of my head. I was holding on so tight that I had forgotten the couch cushions. Projectiles began to slam into the sides of the house, and we could hear the walls creaking and bending, challenged by some unseen monster. In my peripheral vision, I was suddenly aware of daylight pouring into the house where there was none before. My wife’s glasses were sucked off of her face in a vacuum. I remember thinking that I would die before I let this tornado take my angel away from me. I grasped her body with all of my strength, and I could feel a terrible suction. The wind whipped and shrieked, and it was the sound of Death. The roof was being peeled off of our house! At that moment, some gargantuan object crashed down on top of our home and stifled the unwelcome daylight. It felt as if the walls were crumbling down around us, and I thought this was how our lives would surely end.
Kim and her mother were still shouting, and I was silently asking God to spare our lives. A whirlwind of random fragments danced through the house in some apocalyptic ballet as we awaited our judgment in this casket of destruction. A million different thoughts plagued my mind at once, and it finally occurred to me that I still had not used the cushions, so I reached out, grabbed one and attempted to hold it over my wife’s head to protect her while clutching her body with my other arm. I was not aware of Donna’s well-being at this point as she was crouched down on the other side of Kim and I could not see her.
Ever so slightly, the volume of this dreadful symphony began to dissolve. I became aware of insulation and drywall powder caked inside my mouth. As unpleasant as the taste was, my awareness of this detail comforted me because it told me that I was still alive and breathing. All of a sudden, my wife called out for the dogs, and it occurred to me with great terror that through all of the mayhem I had lost track of them. She called their names frantically in a shaky, panicked voice. I looked down and saw that Maggie had been with us through the encounter, but Morton was nowhere to be seen. We both called his name, and when he did not come right away, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of what tragedy had befallen him. We continued to call out his name, and soon the rubble began to shift around in the front of the house as he came around the corner and found his way to us. We rose to our feet and tried to avoid stepping on the shattered glass that surrounded us and covered the tile floor. My wife went into the bathroom to check to see if Plucky was all right. Besides some fallen shampoo bottles and drywall debris, he was untouched. My next goal was getting us outside of these collapsing walls.
The back door sits at the end of the short hallway we cowered in, and I tried the door handle, but it would not budge. Something from the outside was jamming it shut. We looked toward the front of the house, but the wreckage was too great to tread. I glanced into my bedroom on the left to perhaps find an exit, but the rubble and the shattered glass barred the way. I looked to the right into Donna’s bedroom, and it was left almost untouched. This would be our pathway to freedom.
I entered the bedroom and began to climb out of the window. What I found when I crawled out was shocking. It was not the same world that had been there before. It appeared as if a bomb had been detonated in the middle of our yard, and before me was a wasteland of rubble and ruin. Trees were felled, power lines lay like dark serpents twisting through the grass waiting to strike, light poles were splintered and splayed out across the road and giant, jagged slabs of once-livable homes decorated this strange new landscape. A stranger’s mattress rested right outside the eve of the window from which I crawled, and I stepped across it.
I made my way through the remnants, and I instantly impaled the bottom of my shoe on several stabbing nails. I had to use more caution. As my foot throbbed, I slowly tiptoed around the side of the house. What I found in the front yard was like some gigantic destructive ruin from an abandoned war zone. A massive flat slab of iron was draped completely over the top of our roof and suspended outward over the crushed cab of our truck. It was as if some mythical giant was attempting to build a great primitive structure with wood and steel.
I could not venture far because of the fallen power lines, but as I gazed down the hill at the road, I noticed that complete houses were missing. They had been standing there before, and now they were completely gone like the subjects of some evil magician’s sinister disappearing act. I walked around to the backyard and looked over toward the small little storage building with the overhang where we park our car. Another giant iron beam lay across the roof of the building and pinned our car underneath. It was then that I realized what these giant beams were: the bottom of our neighbor’s double-wide mobile home!
Strangers’ belongings were strewn throughout our yard, fence posts were uprooted and it was as if wreckage was all that remained. People were running down the road and screaming, and the sound of distant sirens filled the air. Unfortunately, the roads were impassable. Citizens with shocked faces and empty eyes began to slowly move fallen trees and light poles out of the roadway so that emergency vehicles could eventually get through.
We were still in shock, and we did not know exactly what to do. The only escape route was on foot. This was not going to be easy with so many dangerous obstacles to step over while carrying two dogs and a duck. My phone was ringing off the hook, and people were offering to help, but there was no way for anyone to get into the subdivision. Outsiders did not seem to understand the magnitude of this situation. First responders were entering the subdivision on foot and asking if anyone was hurt. Apparently, a lady had been inside the double-wide mobile home next door when it toppled through the air like a tumbleweed and landed on our house. She miraculously crawled out of the remnants of her destroyed home. I do not know how she survived.
At one point we began to smell gas. A leak was somewhere close by that sent us into another panic. I saw a first responder running down the hill shouting “Gas Leak!” We thought we were going to have to leave on foot right then without any supplies, but fortunately, they were able to get the gas lines shut off quickly.
Eventually, rescue vehicles and more first responders were able to make their way into the subdivision at a snail’s pace. The road became jammed with emergency vehicles and flashing lights lit up the dusk. Kim was able to retrieve some essential items like clothing and flashlights from the accessible parts of our destroyed bedroom. Nightfall was coming swiftly, and we had to get moving. Many fine people were calling and texting, offering to give us rides and shelter, but it would be hours and hours before anyone could actually get to us. Without any other options, we decided to walk out. Our dogs would be placed into a baby stroller, and my wife would carry the duck. We also had bags of supplies to take with us, so this was not going to be an easy trek. An emergency responder informed us that some of the fallen power lines were still live and that we should make sure not to step on any of them. So adding to the rubble, nails, metal and glass obstacles that we had to overcome, deadly live wire were also threats that we had to look out for in the darkening night. This did not include the challenge of the crowded roadway and hundreds of vehicles that we would have to weave between.
I was in charge of the dogs and led the way, so every time we came upon a live wire, I had to lift the stroller up and place it down on the other side. This became almost impossible because I was also carrying bags of supplies and trying to shine a flashlight onto the darkened path. My mother-in-law quickly became exhausted and out of breath before we were very far out of the driveway, and it was clear that she would not be able to make the journey. We stopped in a stranger’s front yard to let Donna rest and catch her breath while we desperately tried to get her some kind of transportation to the nearest convenience store in town. Finally, thanks to the kindness of a Good Samaritan, we were able to get her a ride out of the subdivision in an already packed truck with no room for my wife and me. The plan was to meet her later.
We trudged on. It was like strolling through pure chaos that became virtually unmanageable, and we eventually came to a standstill where low hanging power lines blocked our passage. We stopped on the side of the road in an effort to construct a better plan for getting out of this nightmare. After a few minutes, my wife crossed to the other side of the road, and I was held up as more vehicles inched their way in and out of the ruins. Kim was eventually able to secure a ride for us in the bed of a stranger’s truck. We were filled with gratitude and relief just to be able to exit the dreaded obstacle course and sit down.
Even though we were now secure with our pets in the refuge of this truck, it was a painstakingly slow process getting out of the subdivision. The drivers were forced to dodge hanging power lines and splintered trees, and in some cases, we were plowing through front lawns and ditches as they had become the only drivable paths. The journey out of the devastation took hours, and we were never able to make it to the convenience store where Donna waited for us. We had to settle for being dropped off in front of a hardware store in town, and some good friends were able to pick up my mother-in-law and finally make their way over to us. We were free at last, and some wonderful people opened up their beautiful home to us for a few nights until we were able to get on our feet.
The next day, we were going to try to salvage our surviving belongings from our house, but the subdivision was only open to emergency vehicles as they searched for missing persons and began the long process of clearing the roads. Not until two days later were we able to get into our house to get our things. The kitchen and the bathroom were completely destroyed. The oven and refrigerator had been thrown across the room, and the wall where the cabinets and sink once stood was obliterated. Jagged wooden planks and beams jutted out like teeth from the hungry maw of some towering beast. The outer wall of the bathroom had collapsed inward and a long piece of wood had literally impaled the wall. If any one of us had been standing in the kitchen or the bathroom when the mobile home struck, we would not have made it. We are all extremely fortunate.
Most of our things would have to be moved out of the house in a day, and on top of that, I had somehow managed to severely injure my back sometime during this whole terrifying ordeal, so this was no easy feat. Luckily, we had many great human beings helping us during this hectic and confusing time. Our wonderful landlords had an older model mobile home that they were getting ready to remodel, but they were gracious enough to let us move into it so that we had somewhere to stay, and they spent days helping us transport and situate our things.
The tornado destroyed both of our family vehicles, but we were able to get our car replaced with our full coverage insurance and the generous donations from our church and community. Since we only had liability insurance on the truck, we were not able to get it replaced. It is still sitting in an auto wreck yard right now along with many other tornado damaged vehicles. Most of the damage to the truck was to the crushed cab where the steel beam landed, so hopefully there is a chance that it can be restored. If there is a possibility that it can be saved, I am sure it will not be cheap. I reached out to the Angelina College Foundation Student Emergency Aid Fund, and we even had an interview, but I must have been passed over in the end because I never heard back from their office. Luckily for me, college classes are still online this semester, or I may not be able to attend. If they were held on campus, I would not have transportation to Lufkin every day since my family is down to one car, and my wife uses that one for work.
Even now, in late August as I am writing this, mounds of rubble and ruins of homes remain in the Yaupon Cove subdivision of Onalaska, Texas, and the path of the tornado can still be seen while driving over Lake Livingston. Many places in town are utterly unrecognizable. Some people were not as fortunate as my family, and sadly, the tornado claimed their lives. The town has forever changed, and we are eternally thankful that we made it out alive. I was reminded of the fragility of human existence, and it helps me to understand that I should appreciate every breath and never take my short time on this earth for granted because it can be over in the blink of an eye.
Question this issue:
How have you, or your family, been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
Unfortunately, yes, we have been affected. I have lost two family members. One of my uncles passed away, and about two days later, his daughter passed. My oldest brother tested positive as well, but he’s all right now! It was hard in the beginning because of all the unknowns. My mom owns rentals, so some renters could not make payments because of being laid-off, hours being cut, etc., and it caused an economic impact. It has all worked out now, thankfully.
Major: Journalism/Mass Communication
My family was affected by the coronavirus due to having restrictions and delays when seeing doctors. Also, we had reduced hours at work so a reduction of revenue. The overall effect of the virus has really just become an inconvenience.
Major: Graphic Arts
Hometown: Biloxi, Mississippi
It’s been hard but I am not letting it beat me down.
Major: Graphic Design
The coronavirus has affected my family and me in good and negative ways. My sister was unable to finish her high school career in person like she always wanted to. I lost my job and had to file for unemployment, but the benefits have been very rewarding. I was able to do more classes with my free time.
Major: General Studies
Since the pandemic has begun, my activities outside of the city have been decreased immensely. I find myself worrying about the world’s outcome and the health of those around me. At certain points, the panic of the virus has tightened the love between my family and friends, but occasionally, I’m still very concerned for what’s to come for the next decade.
Major: Graphic Design
The pandemic hasn’t affected my family directly, which I am very fortunate for, but it has affected my job tremendously. I work in retail and am known as an “essential worker.” I has been very difficult working in the public during times like this simply because it’s dangerous putting myself at risk working with the public. Yet I work and go home to my whole family, which puts them at risk , too. Another trial you face while working with the public during a pandemic is the fear your customers experience. Customers come in and panic, often taking several items that aren’t necessarily needed. They are rude to the staff and other customers and act irrationally. So health-wise, I haven’t been affected by COVID-19, but my everyday normal job has turned into a complete nightmare.
Major: Journalism and Mass Communication
I graduated Angelina College this past spring semester of 2020. I had been there for three years. You can only imagine how badly I wanted to walk across that stage with all my family and friends watching. Because of COVID, there was no graduation ceremony. I was very disappointed and felt like my hard work the past three years had been all for nothing. I wanted to celebrate my accomplishments because I was proud of how far I came. I know AC did this not to harm us but to keep us safe and healthy. Though I wish things could have been different, I know that everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for my life!
Major: Former AC student, Elementary Education at SFA
At the start of the pandemic, my grandpa was dealing with treatments for cancer and with my parents’ ages, I didn’t want to put them at risk since I was still going to work and possibly exposed. I had to pack up my things and stay with a friend and then later ended up just living on my own. It caused me to take a big leap in my life but also kept me from seeing my family.
Major: Former AC student, Graphic Design
Due to the coronavirus, I started working with DoorDash. It has also caused my family to stay indoors much more.
Major: Special Education Teaching
Ross Jones Jr.
My family has been affected by the coronavirus because work hours have been cut for my mother, which causes her financial problems. It’s also making it hard to find a job that’s hiring.