STRAIGHT-LINE STORM RAVAGES SOUTH KILGORE

Long recovery ahead following fierce storm Thursday

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About one home in every seven in South Kilgore appeared damaged following a raging storm early Thursday morning, with some houses nearly cut in two by fallen trees.

Straight-line winds, a downburst of high-velocity gusts, toppled scores of trees and downed multiple power lines, leaving thousands of SWEPCO customers without power.

Kilgore officials arranged a press conference Thursday afternoon to provide an update on the city’s response to the storm.

“Since the storm hit at 3 a.m., we’ve had all of our emergency responders and a lot of community members helping to clear the debris that has caused the road blockages. We’ve been working with SWEPCO and utility workers to get the power lines that were down. We’ve had extensive amounts of power lines down so that has been our number-one priority,” said Sonya Waters, community relations manager.

As of press time Friday, no injuries had been reported as a result of the storm.

“We’ve had a number of major roads closed this morning but they are clear now. We are working on getting our most heavily-trafficked roads clear and then working from there getting our next most heavily-trafficked roads clear,” she added, saying city workers were focused on clearing debris from roads first but would return to help remove debris from damaged homes. Workers came in from communities throughout the area to help with the recovery effort.

Mark Robinson, external affairs manager for SWEPCO, said on Thursday power was out for thousands in the area but could be restored to 95 percent of affected customers by Friday evening.

Across the city, homeowners, city workers and neighbors were assessing the damage and trying to begin the process of putting pieces back together.

“This is just awful, a warzone,” Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin said as he toured the damaged houses Thursday. “There are 150-year-old oak trees. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, no pattern.”

In a silver lining to a very dark cloud, Spradlin noted neighbors helping neighbors as other volunteers stepped up to lend a hand and contribute what they could in the early hours after the storm rampaged through South Kilgore.

“Kilgore’s a town that when there’s a need people just step up, you don’t have to ask. It’s astounding what this community will kick in.”

“We were blessed because nobody got hurt that I know of,” Shawn Meredith said Thursday afternoon, hard at work clearing a fallen tree off his mother’s Emmons Street home. “It woke me up on the other side of town. I didn’t know it was this bad over here.

“The back yard’s a train wreck.”

The storm woke Corey Wilson, and he was awed by the damage that followed.

“I didn’t know what it was. It was loud, so loud it just sounded like stuff tearing,” he said.

Wilson woke to find a tree branch punched through the door of his wife’s car. With as many as 15 trees down in the back yard, he started his day with the purchase of a new chainsaw.

“I was up at Lowe’s at 6 a.m.”

David Hillman was always ready to break out the chainsaw as soon as possible.

“My truck is in the back, and there’s a cedar tree on top of it,” he said.

Hillman and his daughter, Chloe, took cover in a hallway at 3 a.m. as the storm roared outside.

“It sounded like the roof was trying to come off the house,” he said. “It sound like hail was hitting the windows; maybe it wasn’t hail, maybe it was debris flying through the air.

“I had very little damage to the house, but you can see what it did to all my trees.”

Kilgore Public Works Director Clay Evers was one of numerous city officials surveying the damage and lending a hand throughout the day Thursday.

“It’s localized to this part of town for the most part,” he said mid-morning, looking at major debris in four directions from the intersection of Florence and Bean. “This looks more like tornado damage. We’re doing our best to clear the roads so they’re free of wire.”

“It’s pretty devastating,” Kilgore Parks Director Danny Downing said, chainsaw in hand as he and city crew members cleared a road-blocking tree off Woodlawn. “For something just like this, that’s why we have two brush trucks working.”

Rachel Gafford woke to find her fence down, taken out by several fallen trees, and a neighbor’s trampoline wrapped around a tree in her front yard on Bean Avenue.

“I woke up. I heard the hail. I felt the winds. Then the power went out,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I’m going back to bed.’

Hours later, “I’m blocked on all sides. There’s trees everywhere.”

Kilgore ISD Director of Technology Mark Lane joined Finance Director Revard Pfeffer in clearing up debris at Kilgore Intermediate School and other district properties.

“It’s a bunch – just trees down and power,” Lane said. “We’re just trying to clean up what we can while we can.”

At KIS, almost 20 towering trees were either uprooted, root balls exposed and drying out in the sunshine mid-day, while other trunks simply cracked a few feet from the ground and toppled over.

“You just feel for all these guys back here in these neighborhoods,” Lane said.

“We heard some crashes, some booms,” Roy Street resident Jadia Verones said. “We assumed it was just a transformer because the power went out.”

She awoke Thursday to find one of the blasts had come from a tree falling on her neighbor’s house across the street. Fortunately, it was empty at the time.

“They’re on the way home. They were on vacation,” Verones said. “It’s bad. It’s a complete loss.”

Waking up in the middle of the night, she recorded audio near the height of the storm, about 3 a.m.

“We’re new to Texas, so this is a new experience,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

A City of Kilgore press release and SWEPCO officials urged residents to use caution around downed power lines and to treat any line as if it is energized. Residents are asked to stay away from downed lines and report them to SWEPCO through their mobile app or by calling them at 1-888-218-3919 immediately.

Residents with severe damage to their homes can contact Kilgore Dispatch at 903-983-1559 to request assistance. For emergencies, residents should call 911.

The Red Cross has set up in the Activity Center in St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on 401 E. Main St, offering water, coffee and snacks. Kilgore College has opened the Parks Fitness Center from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. offering hot showers and a place to charge cell phones.

The City of Kilgore Facebook page reported Friday afternoon SWEPCO expects to have power restored to 95 percent of customers in the Kilgore area by midnight Friday. Crews were still working to repair four major power lines near Kilgore schools where storm damage was particularly severe. Contract crews have been brought in to help with the repair effort.

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