Aid still needed after tornadoes sweep through Alto

by Cristin Parker

Thanks to the many helping hands of area residents, the Alto community is already rallying back from last weekend’s devastating weather.

And there’s still plenty of assistance needed.

“The phones are up and running at City Hall. If you are in need of help with debris and tree clean up please contact Alto City Hall,” city officials posted on the city’s Facebook page on Monday. “We have volunteers stopping by and asking where they can help. We will point them in your direction. Our number is (936) 858-4711.

“The city of Alto is putting forth great effort into getting clean-up crews going and starting the process of cleaning up the city. Please, we ask all citizens keep the streets clear for emergency and clean-up crews. This is very important as our crews cannot do their jobs due to unnecessary high traffic.

“Again if it is not necessary for you to be on the streets, please stay home. We appreciate your cooperation during his devastating time.”

The National Weather Service reported at least two tornadoes, ranking F2 and F3 tore through Alto and other east Texas counties Saturday, April 13 – killing four people in three counties.

First responders on Saturday, arrived on scene as soon as a half-hour after the all-clear sign was given and set up a triage center at The River Church (formerly Alto Community Fellowship Church), 595 S. Marcus St., Alto. Help and donations from numerous church organizations, civic clubs, businesses and individuals continued to pour into the area Tuesday, to help the victims of the storms; and the responders and volunteers working on clean-up efforts.

Donations of adult diapers; over-the-counter medications; non-perishable food such as canned food or items that are easy to fix; manual can openers; flashlights and batteries; D batteries; trash bags; cardboard boxes to put items in (carry size); tarps or weather tarping rolls; hammers; nails; and other supplies can be taken to Alto Missionary Baptist Church, 107 Elkhart St., Alto.

Call Jaleea Dowling, (903) 284-8083 to arrange for drop offs.

Perishable foods, prepared food for citizens in need and for first responders can be donated to The River in Alto, on U.S. 69 S.

Agricultural supplies, including fencing material and tools can be dropped off at the drop point across from Alto City Hall, 404 W. San Antonio St., Alto. Call Cherokee County AgriLife Extension Agent Aaron Low, (903) 683-5416.

Alto Police Chief Jeremy Jackson is requesting individuals to man the donation station 24 hours a day until further notice. Call 936 (858) 4711 to volunteer.

A boil water notice continues to be in effect for residents along FM 757 in Alto. No other water customers are affected. Drinking water is available at Alto Fire Department and Missionary Baptist Church.

Alto city officials said monetary donations can be made to the Alto Relief Fund at BancorpSouth in Alto. Contact the bank, (936) 858-4416, to donate to the fund.

Chandler resident Sheila Bolin Browning is maintaining a Facebook page, Alto Tornado Recovery, for people affected by Saturday’s storms to receive updated donation information, to post or look for lost pets and share other recovery news.

Rusk resident Brittany Lankford shared via social media, “I was in Alto (Sunday) helping a friend after the tornados. What I saw was what I have always believed was inside of people even when it’s hard to see in this world right now. So many hands working tirelessly. People coming randomly up to places on foot just to volunteer their time and support. Rescue workers working tirelessly. No care for who you were or who you weren't. It was horrid. And beautiful.”

The National Weather Service survey teams reached preliminary conclusions on Sunday, determining the strength of Saturday’s tornadoes in Alto and other severe weather that swept through Cherokee and other east Texas counties.

“The first tornado has been given a preliminary rating of EF-2 with top winds at 120 mph and the worst damage from that tornado being south of Alto,” representatives with the NWS reported Monday. “It touched down two miles north of the Neches River near the Cherokee County and Houston County line. It was on the ground for two minutes, traveled less than a mile, and was more than 400 yards wide.

“The second tornado was rated an EF-3 with top winds estimated at 160 mph, with the worst damage southwest of Alto on Highway 21. This was a long track tornado that touched down southwest of Alto and stayed on the ground for over 40 minutes and covered nearly 30 miles. It was 880 yards wide.”

Both tornadoes destroyed or damaged more than 20 homes, structures – including St. Thomas Chapel -- and numerous vehicles and snapped or toppled thousands of trees.
“It’s amazing how much power that tornado had,” Alto storm survivor Betsy Breaux Weathers said via her Facebook account. “It pulled huge cemented poles out of the ground and they are sticking straight up in the air. If it had been another 30 feet or so, it would have been on my house. It was my hay barn. It was 30 x 50 foot and was picked up and thrown over a six-foot fence and dropped in front of my house.”

New Summerfield teacher and Rusk resident Mandy Beamer shared via social media, “Today could have ended so differently. It did for some. Our family was blessed! Tornado went right over my mother’s house. We lost all the barns, out-buildings... and one of her crape myrtle trees. The bird feeder in the tree was fine. My mom and my grandmother's houses were both spared. The whirly things on moms house still had the trash bags over them but the rest of the place looks like a bomb went off. … My heart is flooded with memories of my childhood. … I could hear my grandfather through my tears, telling me it is only stuff -- I know it is only stuff and my parents are way more precious than stuff! I thank Jesus for his protection over them.”

Another tornado was also reported touching down in Houston County, killing a Weches woman, and damage from strong winds was reported across Nacogdoches, Angelina, Trinity and Rusk counties. Two children were pronounced dead at the scene in Pollock after the car they were in was smashed by a falling tree.

Several people in Alto were critically injured and one person died after the F3 tornado struck the Caddo Mounds State Historical Site. The park had been holding a Caddo culture festival and many of the festival-goers were outside at the park on Saturday when the storms hit.

“I spoke with one woman who was transported from the park after,” said Steve Goode, who said he was on site immediately following the storms, volunteering as grief and trauma counselor. “She and her baby were inside the building when it came down. She told me she actually held up a piece of the ceiling off her baby and blew out both her knees. I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes. But they’re safe now, praise the Lord, and she’ll make a full recovery.”

Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell confirmed Monday an Oklahoma woman attending the evemt died after being life-flighted to an area hospital from the Site.

The park’s guest center and several of the park’s exhibits -- including the replica of an authentic Caddo hut -- were completely destroyed by the storms.

“The Caddo Mounds State Historic Site is closed until further notice,” park officials posted on the Site’s Facebook page. “We will provide an update as soon as we have more information. Please keep the community of Alto in your thoughts, along with all others affected by this disaster.”

Alto Independent School District canceled classes and other school related events Monday as several of the district’s buildings, including the Alto High School and the Alto Elementary gym, sustained damage during Saturday’s storms. However, school officials posted on the district’s Facebook page Sunday, “due to … the approaching district and area deadlines, all Alto High School athletic events must remain on schedule. We will not host any events or practices, and all home games will be moved to the visiting school’s facilities. Coaches will be in contact with players for practice arrangements.

“We acknowledge the stress all families are under and understand if your child needs to help with clean up and not participate at this time. Thank you to all neighboring districts who have offered their facilities for our athletic practices.”

The Yellowjackets played softball at Garrison on Monday; softball in Wells and baseball at Douglass on Tuesday; participated in an area track meet at San Augustine on Wednesday; and will play softball at Gary and baseball at Groveton on Thursday.

“There are no words to express our feelings at this time; we are numb, and sad, and worried, and tired ... but the collective feeling of gratefulness within our community is indescribable,” AISD administrators posted on the district’s Facebook page. “At this time we can confidently report that no student or staff member was lost during this tragedy. We are all accounted for, but not all have remaining shelter. We ask that you continue to keep our school and community in your prayers.

“We can’t begin to thank all of the schools, businesses, and individuals that have assisted today and offered continued assistance in the weeks to come. Nothing that has been done has gone unnoticed, and we apologize if we aren’t able to thank you each individually. Just know each and every one of you have blessed our school in ways we can’t repay.”

Other area events were postponed due to Saturday’s weather as well.

Instead of holding a previously scheduled town hall meeting in Jacksonville this week, U.S. Congressman Gooden will instead spend time in the areas hit hardest by the tornadoes to see firsthand the damage done by the storms.

Congressman Gooden said, “In the wake of the tornado and severe weather in our area, I have rescheduled the Town Hall in Jacksonville. Alexa and I extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected by the storms. We aim to do whatever we can to help the people of Alto in this challenging time. The various weather services are predicting severe weather in the area once again Wednesday evening. Please stay home and stay safe.”