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The Perfect Storm

A look back at the day that changed a town forever
"I remember driving in from Dallas as soon as it hit bringing water, chainsaws and anything else I could think of only to get to town and see it all blocked off by the National guards or some set of folks. They weren’t going to let me in but I told them it was my town and I was going in if it had to be over the top of them so be it! They moved and let me in. I just remember seeing it all and feeling like i recognized nothing."--Mollie Elaine Blackmon

By Erin Pipes
DeKalb 4th Grade Teacher
Special to the Tribune

May 4, 1999. It was a regular, humid, overcast Tuesday in the small East Texas town of De Kalb. On the day before, we had heard about a tornado ripping through an area of Oklahoma City and destroying everything in its path. At that time, we had no idea that what they had experienced would resemble so greatly what we were about to experience ourselves. 

I was a sophomore in high school, and I, like any other sophomore, thought nothing like a tornado would hit my town. Boy, was I wrong! I went to my classes just like any other day in that school year. The end of the year was fast approaching, and summer was only a month away. As I look back on that day, I only wish we had that one more month of school to go through. 
At about 2:00 p.m., it was time for my last period class, which was athletics. I headed toward the gym, again, just like any other day. All of the organized sports were over, and we were going through various “off-season” workouts. This particular week was my favorite -- ‘volleyball week,’ so I rushed to the gym to get ready to play. I headed into the locker room to get changed into my workout clothes. The regular gossip and griping that you hear from any group of teenage girls was taking place in the locker room. I was about to head out to the court, but met my coach, Coach Motes, at the door instead. She instructed us to all go back into the locker room to “sit down” … she “needed to tell us something important.” I immediately started thinking to myself, “she’s going to make us run instead of play volleyball” … unfortunately, I was wrong. 

Coach said that she had just gotten a call from the office about a tornado sighted in Clarksville, and Bowie County had just been issued a tornado warning. The office told her that we were to stay there, in that metal building, until further notice. At this point, about forty girls, including me, were entering panic mode. She told us that “if we had anyone at home that could come get us, to hurry and go call them.” My parents both worked out of town, and my grandmother was unable to drive, so I was stuck there, scared to death. The fright in Coach’s voice made me all the more scared. I remember going to look out the back door to check things out. Very quickly, I realized that was a bad idea. I could see that it was getting darker, and the wind was beginning to pick up, so I quickly closed the door. I decided to go back to my friends in the locker room and try to wait the storm out. 

Coach Motes came in the locker room and told us to assume the “tornado position.” She kept telling us “This is all just precautionary.” I believed that right up until the lights went out. At that point, there were only about 25 of us left, and things were turning into EXTREME panic mode! It was a ritual for us, and any other athletic group I had ever been associated with, to recite “The Lord’s Prayer” before anything we did. This certainly could be no different. As we began to say the prayer, while arched over in that oh-so-uncomfortable position, crying and trying so hard to be strong for the person next to us, we could hear the wind blowing against the building, and things beginning to crash into the side of it. Even though things were very scary at that point, the tornado had still not quite fully reached us. 
You have heard people describe a tornado as sounding like a freight train heading straight toward you. There is not any other way to describe it. At approximately 3:02 p.m. on May 4, 1999, that “train” came through, leaving a major path of destruction. 

About five to ten minutes passed, and finally, we got a phone call. Our principal, who had been in the school’s vault, was calling to tell us it was over. She said that the high school and elementary were both hit badly, but amazingly everyone survived. She then said we could make arrangements to head home. 

I won’t ever forget the view I got when I went out that gym door. Houses that had been directly in front of the gym looked like they had just been picked up and sat down across the street from where they were supposed to be. Trees and tree limbs were everywhere. Cars in the parking lot were toppled and mangled. One car was wrapped around a tree. Students were everywhere, holding their mouths in awe, crying and hugging. I remember thinking to myself, as I saw the rubble that used to be the halls of our high school how lucky I was, to have been in that metal building, that suffered only a minimal amount of damage. 

I finally found my ride in all the crowds of people. Because of all of the traffic and students, we had to go an alternate route to get to my house. The alternate route we had to take led us all through town. It let me see most of the damage that had been done. It was another scary sight I hope to never see again. There were only a select few businesses on the main stretch of highway that could possibly continue business that next day. When I got home, my family was waiting for me, because they couldn’t get into town to try to find me. The police had closed off the streets to anyone coming in… you could only get out. They did that because it seemed like everyone within a 30-mile radius wanted to come see the rubble that was left of our town. 

It wasn’t until later that I realized the rubble I thought was our town, was just that, rubble. Our town was the people, and our people, our town persevered. Within a year, we had almost everything back in working order, and the school was under construction. At the time, it was not clear to me why we had to endure such a storm, an F4 tornado, but now I know. The tornado made the people of our town so much closer than they had been, and we learned to lean on each other for support in more ways than one.

No one wants anything like a tornado to happen in their life, and to this day I get a queasy feeling when a cloud even gets close. In a way, the tornado made me a better person. It made me realize what I had and how quickly I could lose it. The tornado left many things broken and many people sad, but all in all, with no severe injuries, I’d call what we had, “The Perfect Storm.”

Bowie County Citizens Tribune

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