The tornado that struck Rowena and Ballinger on Saturday, May 18th, 2019, formed at about 7:10 a.m. in the vicinity of CR 2133 and 1678. It traveled in a north/northwesterly direction from that location, striking and damaging several farmhouses, outbuildings and disintegrating telephone poles throughout Rowena.
Once the vortex approached highway 67 about a mile south of Ballinger it struck and destroyed an old farmhouse, flipped an RV and put a flatbed trailer onto of the destroyed farmhouse. The tornado continued north until it crossed highway 67 about 300 yards south of the Old Runnels County Vet Clinic (old Dorner farm), inflicting calamitous damage as well as littering debris along the highway and county road 449.
Once the tornado crossed over the highway, it continued north and seemed to gather strength over the open farmland. Debris was strewn about throughout the countryside, over 1000’ from it’s path in most cases. The tornado made a direct hit as its path of destruction zeroed in on homes county roads 2133, 2111 and 443, with over 3-dozen telephone poles snapped in half or snapped off at the base.
A pickup truck on CR 442 had extensive damage, including a crushed cab that looked like it had been in a rollover collision. A school bus and a car on the property as the truck suffered extensive damage.
Several structures along CR 443 had severe damage as the twister continued to wreak havoc. The twister picked up and sat 2 large flatbed trailers down in a cultivated field as it hurled debris for hundreds of yards in all directions.
A destroyed home and other buildings on a farm off of CR 2111 bore the evidence of a direct hit by the storm. The area, once an oasis of tall trees and an elegant farmhouse in the middle of fields of farmland was left in ruins. The trees were twisted and uprooted, the home destroyed, the other buildings totally destroyed and an iron I-beam tossed out to CR 2111, over 500 yards from the home. Any trees left standing suffered substantial damage with limbs and leaves stripped off as if they’d been put through a shredder. The once beautiful, stately area now looked like a picture from a Grimm fairytale or a Tim Burton movie.
The heavy rains flooded fields and pastures and debris was strewn about for hundreds of yards. The tornado’s path now included almost 9 miles on the ground.
The next target was Ballinger Country Club, which suffered extensive damage. The majority of the Afghan pines and old growth oak trees were uprooted throughout the course, mesquite trees were uprooted or split in half and the rock wall around the swimming pool collapsed as the building took a direct hit. Much of the front had significant damage and south wall took the brunt of the twister. The greens keeper’s house on the property had its roof torn off. The golf cart sheds had significant damage as well. Members started showing up to help clear debris but one board member said that they were told to wait on a lot of the work because the club needed to get the insurance adjuster out there first to survey the damage.
The tornado continued on its northern path and struck the baseball field and the football field at the high school. The baseball field was completely obliterated. One dugout was left standing, as was a set of bleachers. Everything else was thrown about in pieces across the field. Twisted metal, downed power lines and other debris littered the area, with much of the sheet metal wrapped like a wet sheet around whatever object it struck as it was hurled through the air at over 120 mph.
The water tower took a direct hit as well. There was a leak on the bottom third section and city cut the water off since they did not have time to patch it. City Manager Tommy Turney said that the city was using the other water tower and that the city water supply wouldn’t be affected.
The tornado then hit 5 houses on highway 158 between the high school and Buddy’s Plants Plus. One of the houses was completely leveled. There were 2 people in one house that was destroyed. The man had made it to the cellar but the woman was in the kitchen and getting ready to head to the basement when the tornado struck their home. City Manager Tommy Turney said that she told rescue crews, “All I could do was hold onto the stove. I felt the tornado pulling at me and I thought it would rip me out of my home.” Ballinger VFD arrived quickly and had to remove debris to free her but, miraculously, she didn’t have any serious injuries. Her husband was not injured.
The other houses in that area suffered catastrophic damage.
There were also reports of an older woman found in a field along CR 2111. Reports stated that she was found approximately 150 feet from her home.
In all, the tornado traveled almost 10 miles on the ground. It maintained its north/northwest track except for a couple of jogs here and there.
With all of the destruction that happened on that early Saturday morning on May 18th, one glaring aspect that was obvious everywhere was neighbors helping neighbors. City employees and volunteer fire fighters worked hand-in-hand to clear debris and search for people. Several had suffered damage to their own homes but were out helping others. City Manager Tommy Turney was out coordinating cleanup efforts at the homes damaged and destroyed by the twister at is crossed highway 158. He was speaking with the crews and residents as city workers helped clear debris and helped the families remove furniture and heirlooms from their destroyed homes.
The Ballinger Fire Department and VFD were on-scene quickly. One fire fighter said that the VFD had already been set up southwest of Ballinger when the tornado formed. They deployed early due to the chance of severe weather and were prepared in advance, “We were set up so we could follow in behind the tornado and start search and rescue.” That is the type of planning and proactive approach that are crucial in survival for victims of natural disasters. They followed in right behind the tornado and not only were on the spot to search for victims, they were able to alert law enforcement and others to the updated location and path of the vortex.
The Ballinger Police Department and Runnels County Sheriff’s Office were crucial in getting out the warning to residents who lived outside the range of the tornado sirens. They were up and down county roads and other streets with their lights and sirens on. One Runnels County deputy as well as a Ballinger Police officer drove south on Highway 67 to get their eyes on the tornado and then raced back north warning people. With the power out and most internet signals down, early warning by law enforcement was the key component to alerting people in the path of the tempest as it rained down destruction.
AEP and Coleman County Electric Co-op were on-scene quickly and working to repair downed power lines and replace snapped electric poles. At one point they brought in a large load of telephone poles and then told us later that they were bringing in another load of 20 poles. The power was restored to many within a couple of hours, while others were without power for almost 24 hours. The linemen worked through the night to restore power.
Jeff Smith from KRUN radio and others paid for, set up and cooked food for all of the workers. There was pasta, cookies, Gatorade, water, sodas, sausages, homemade cornbread, cupcakes and brownies. The food was set up at the command post location was in the parking lot of Buddy’s Plant Plus. Buddy’s and many others donated water and other items for the workers. The work started at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t end until after 8 p.m. The workers would take breaks to come get a plate of food and sit down for a few minutes in the shade of the canopies set up in the parking lot. The vast majority of the workers and volunteers stayed out the entire day without taking a break so water and food were carried to them.
Perhaps the greatest show of solidarity in the aftermath of the tornado’s destruction was neighbors helping neighbors. People showed up immediately after the tornado passed, with the rain still pouring down, and helped out their friends who were in the path of the storm. They used farm tractors, front-end loaders and other farm equipment to move debris, lift the wreckage of homes and help those who had just lost everything. Friends, neighbors, city crews and volunteer fire fighters worked hand-in-hand, clearing the remains of devastated homes with the sound of a dozen chainsaws screaming in the background as they worked to clear downed trees and posts. Tractors using forks and other attachments, operated by farmers, cleared large trees and carried off debris to the collection area. Churches and others carried plates of food, water and Gatorade out to victims, volunteers and linemen working along county roads from Rowena to Ballinger. The tornado’s damage was exacerbated by the over 3” of rain that poured down, flooding fields, creeks, county roads and destroying anything left standing from the devastated homes. But even flooding in the aftermath of the tornado didn’t slow anyone down.
The challenges didn’t weaken the resolve of Rowena and Ballinger they only strengthened it. The worst Mother Nature threw at the towns brought out the best in the people who call this area home. The tightknit communities banded together and even those not able to help with the physical work offered a hugs and reassurance that they were all in this together.
The cleanup will likely take weeks, as many places have to wait on insurance adjusters to come assess damage. The possibility also exists that there might be momentary power outages as damaged telephone poles are replaced. People left without homes will have to rebuild their lives and will need help from the community. The physical damage can be repaired and the destroyed home and other buildings can be rebuilt bigger and better, but thanks to the efforts of the rescuers and workers, no lives were lost.