Rowlett: A tale of tragedy and resilience

Part 1 of a 2 part series

As the winter holidays approach with fun and festivities on the minds of many, a solemn anniversary looms for the survivors of the 2015 tornado that devastated parts of Garland and Rowlett.

Bohdana Kertesz, administrative assistant to the dean for the School of Social Sciences, is a storm survivor. Despite losing her home, she stayed strong, has fully recovered and moved on.

“Life goes on and I still get a little nervous when I hear the sirens and I guess that’s just natural. We moved on and recovered. It’s just the material stuff can always be replaced. You just got to appreciate each other more when these things happen and enjoy life.”

On Dec. 26, 2015, the storm outlook showed North Central Texas was under an “enhanced risk” of storms, where numerous severe storms are possible. By evening, a tornadic thunderstorm over South Dallas moved north, forming a tornado in Sunnyvale that moved toward Garland and Rowlett.

The “Spirit of Rowlett” memorial is located at Schrade Bluebonnet Park in Rowlett.

The “Spirit of Rowlett” memorial is located at Schrade Bluebonnet Park in Rowlett.

Just as festive celebrations were ending, this emergency broadcast from the National Weather Service turned the day into the worst experience ever for many residents: “Spotters report a large and extremely dangerous tornado north of Sunnyvale moving north toward Garland and Rowlett. If you are in the path of this storm, take cover immediately!”

Stephen Levine, senior academic adviser at Richland College and avid storm-chaser, said the tornado was significant to Dallas and Rockwall Counties.

“It reached a status of EF-4, which is considered a very destructive tornado and when it moved up north, it diminished into an EF-3. It was one of the strongest tornadoes we’ve had in Dallas County and extremely rare for so late in December.”

“Destructive” is a fitting description, as it carved 13 miles of damage with wind speeds estimated at 170 to 180 mph. It also occurred at an uncommon time.

“The peak [tornado] season is April and early May but we can get them elsewhere during the year. There is a second storm that sometimes occurs in October and November, where tornadoes can happen. This outbreak the day after Christmas is basically unprecedented in North Texas,” Levine said.

Although significant from meteorological viewpoints, it was also for those hit. With $26 million of damage, nearly 600 homes were damaged and almost 400 were destroyed. Although Richland was not hit directly, it was impacted nonetheless as many staff members and students were affected.

Kertesz’s home was hit by the tornado.

“On that day, I was driving from my work [because] I have another job. I was driving back home and basically the tornado hit and I was caught on the road, which was the scariest thing I have ever experienced. The most stressful thing about it was the separation from my son because my son was at home and I was trying to get to him,” she said.

When she arrived home, she found her son had survived. It was not easy for them after the tornado though, as many obstacles arose.

“First thing of course, I had to focus on finding another place where I’m going to stay. It was hard because everybody else was looking for a place to stay. I remember the hotels were booked out and we managed to find a place for the first couple of days and then later on, I stayed with my friend for a couple of weeks until we found a more permanent living [space],” Kertesz said. Emergency response teams were there to help them.

“The response was incredible from everybody from churches, workplaces, even here at Richland, of course. People were just incredible for explaining concerns and wishing well, asking them about us, to donations and helping but it helped a lot, based on recovery. That people keep you in mind that you’re not alone, that helped a lot,” she said.