The recent deadly tornadoes that struck rural Kansas brought back sad memories for the people of Jarrell, Texas, a community of about 1400 people less than an hour's drive north of the state capital, Austin. It was ten years ago that a tornado devastated part of the town and killed 27 people, many of them children. VOA's Greg Flakus visited Jarrell and filed this report.
The tornado that struck the northwest corner of Jarrell in 1997 was classed an F-5, the most lethal and damaging type.
Just off the town's main thoroughfare, the loss in human life is commemorated with a small monument. Real estate broker Jeff Stockton lost many friends to the storm. "This is a whole family of five, this is a family of four, the parents and then the kids," said Stockton, pointing to engraved names on a tombstone.
Most children had just come home from school that late afternoon when the tornado hit. Most tornadoes come from the south, but as Stockton explains, this one came from the north.
"Right now we are standing on the west side of I-35 on the north end of Jarrell and this is about where it first came down and the tornado really started hitting the ground right here on the north side of town,” said Stockton. "This is the first place it came through and the biggest damage it did here was tear up a bunch of mesquite trees here and killed quite a few cows that were out in the pasture, but then when it hit the residential area, that is when we lost some friends."
Most people survived the Jarrell tornado by getting away, but many residents of the Double Creek subdivision took shelter inside their homes. That would have saved them from a normal tornado, but not this one.
“These people here, they perished. But they did what they were told to do, which is go to the center of your house and get down and try to find safety,” Stockton said. “There was no safety from this storm."
One of the first people on the scene was city worker Tookie Mullen. "It was bad. They had already pulled eight or ten bodies up on the slabs, pieces of bodies, half bodies and it was real bad," Mullen recalls.
Mullen says he was unable to talk about the experience for more than a year. He has learned to deal with the memory, but having seen the results of nature's fury, he stays vigilant.
"I am really a big weather watcher. I always was, but now I watch it a lot more. I have about six weather deals set up on my satellite system, because I do worry about it," says Mullen.
Jeff Stockton, like most people here, puts his faith in a storm shelter made of concrete and designed to be set into the ground. He says one of these can hold his family and some neighbors if necessary.
"That is not a problem to get everybody in there and I can promise you, I do not care how many people are in that thing, if there is a tornado coming, there is room for me!"
Ten years after the tornado, Jarrell is an active town. There are new houses on all the lots in Double Creek, except one -- where a high school friend of Jeff Stockton and her daughter died.
Stockton says Jarrell's favorable location, near Austin, and on the interstate, makes it an attractive location for business, keeping the community growing. He explains, "We want to make this a place where kids can grow up and they can come back and get good work."
Stockton says Jarrell is moving forward, but never forgetting its tragedy.