By Rebecca Torrellas
HOUSTON (OSV News) – As Houston and its surrounding counties braced for a storm Jan. 24, people watched the news and stayed abreast of the tornado watches as they headed to work or school and went about their day.
The last thing anyone imagined was that an EF2 tornado would hit the area.
Citizens of Deer Park, Texas, a city encompassing four square miles just outside of Houston with a population of about 35,000 people, got a warning on their cellphones only 30 seconds before a tornado hit their area.
Within moments, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston received a call from Father Reginald Samuels, pastor of St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park, that the church sustained “a bit of roof damage and water damage.” It was not until later that the magnitude of the damage to the church, which is the spiritual home to about 1,608 households, would be seen.
“The church complex sustained heavy damage, especially to the religious education buildings, Guyot Hall and rectory,” said Father Samuels, who also is the archdiocese’s vicar for Catholics of African descent. “There was damage to several of the windows, and the church grounds and pavilion sustained major damages as well.”
Even as the nation saw the impactful images of the aftermath of what the National Weather Service declared was at least an EF2 tornado – meaning wind speeds of 111 to 165 mph, a rarity in South Texas – there were no fatalities, and only one non-life-threatening injury was reported.
“Praise be to God, everyone made it through safely through the tornado event,” Father Samuels said in an interview with the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The National Weather Service had issued a “Tornado Emergency,” and it was the first time such an alert had been issued in the Houston area since the alert’s inception in 2016.
According to the National Weather Service, that is “an exceedingly rare tornado warning issued when there is a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage from an imminent or ongoing tornado. This tornado warning is reserved for situations when a reliable source confirms a tornado, or there is clear radar evidence of the existence of a damaging tornado, such as the observation of debris.”
The tornado warning began in the Sienna Plantation planned community in Missouri City, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Houston, and continued around Pearland before radar began picking up debris at around 2:25 p.m., making meteorologists certain a tornado was hidden within a large amount of rain.
It was traced from southeast Houston into Pasadena, then Deer Park, and into the outskirts of Baytown east of Houston before the debris dissipated and the warning expired. The tornado had ransacked over 20 miles.
Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr. said the tornado hit the town at approximately 2:49 p.m., tearing down Center Street, one of the town’s main streets.
“We have approximately 30 road closures from debris and downed power lines,” he said after the storm passed.
The damages to Deer Park and nearby Pasadena were described as catastrophic as citizens pulled together to try and help each other. Roofs and walls were torn from businesses and homes, poles were bent toward the ground, trees were uprooted and thrown in different directions, air conditioning units were carried away to different streets, and scraps of metal were twisted around trees and power lines.
Homes in the Clearcroft subdivision in southeast Houston were among the first hit in the Beltway and Ellington Air Field area by the tornado.
Jo Ann Zuñiga, media relations manager with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said she was at work when a neighbor called her to let her know her home in southeast Houston had sustained damage from a tornado. She quickly left the office to check on her house, and it took three times as long to get home due to the amount of debris on her way.
“The tornado touched down and knocked all the fence lines down like dominoes, and the thick posts busted through windows, created holes in the walls, and some of the roofs were blown off,” she said.
“My house is a one-story huddled among mostly two-story houses,” Zuñiga said, “so it stayed mainly protected except for the back fence being knocked down, a fist-sized hole punched in the side of the exterior wall to the point of seeing the insulation inside, and the newly installed gutter system banged and dented.
“But the worse home hit in the neighborhood was a two-story house three houses down from me on the same side of the street. Its back part of the roof was blown off, exposing the wood beams and making the house unlivable for now.”
Zuñiga said her next-door neighbor had just returned home from work and was taking out the garbage when she turned and saw the funnel heading from the Ellington area straight for their neighborhood.
“I heard my Ring doorbell camera while I was at work and checked my camera, seeing my neighbor with a garbage bag in hand. I was surprised because it was pouring downtown by our office, but I didn’t see any rain from the camera view in the neighborhood. Then my camera zapped offline,” she told the Texas Catholic Herald.
Later that evening Zuñiga’s neighbor told her it was at that moment “when she saw the funnel coming toward her. She dropped the garbage bag and ran through her open garage door. … She and her 3-year-old son and her mother huddled inside the house as they heard the wind howl and debris bashing against the walls and heard a big crash from upstairs when a fence post busted a hole in their wall and broke a window.”
Zuñiga said after the rain stopped, neighbors were hammering, boarding up broken windows, and shouting out directions as they were putting blue tarps over torn roofs. Others were walking the neighborhood assessing and still in shock over the damage and how fast the tornado tore through before heading into Pasadena and Deer Park.
“Thanks be to God no one was hurt,” said Zuñiga.
After she saw “the even more extensive damage in neighboring Pasadena and Deer Park on the evening and this morning’s news,” she said, she definitely wanted to go to Mass the day after the storm on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Jan. 25, “to give thanks that no one was hurt or killed.”