Reporter’s Notebook: Surrounded by debris of what was their lives, Onalaska community remains resilient after tornado

ONALASKA, TexasEditor’s Note: KPRC 2′s Hannah Mackenzie went to Onalaska Thursday to meet with residents who are grappling with the aftermath of a devastating tornado that left three dead, 33 hurt and destroyed more than 300 homes. This is her account of what she saw.

The images are tough, but the stories are tougher.

I’ve covered plenty of tornados and hurricanes – it never gets easier.

My photojournalist, Jeovany Luna, and I arrived in Onalaska at around 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

I wanted to get to the hardest-hit area, to speak to those who rode out the tornado. I want to let them tell their stories and find out what they need.

It was apparent the neighborhood with the most damage was Yaupon Cove. With several police checkpoints set up, I wasn’t sure if we’d get in. We did.

READ ALSO: How to help people in Polk County after deadly tornado

Within minutes of arriving, Jeovany and I set up to go on air and show the world the devastation that we were seeing. After a live shot at noon, it was time to talk to residents and officials.

The first woman I met was Rosa Edwards. She was, fortunately, was not in her mobile home when the tornado touched down around 6 p.m. Wednesday. By chance, she’d gone to visit a friend 10 miles away.

She didn’t expect that when she returned, she’d find most of her home in her neighbor’s front yard.

“My stove is gone, my refrigerator… everything got wiped out,” Edwards said. “I’m just going to recuperate what I can and wash it and clean it and go from there.”

The second person I met was Steven Farrows who told me he took shelter in his kitchen, with his four children, as the tornado ripped through town.

“We felt the whole house pick up and move,” Farrows said. “It was right on top of us. Very little warning.”

This is the sixth tornado Farrows said he has lived through. It was also the worst one yet.

“Somebody was watching out for me,” Farrows said. “We’re lucky to be alive.”

A group of people arrived in a golf cart, laden with plates of food, snacks and drinks.

The food was donated by local restaurants and the group was among others who were distributing the food to community members who were scavenging among the debris for salvageable pieces of their lives. They said the fire department was serving as the distribution warehouse.

We drove around a little longer, looking for people to talk to.

Then we saw it.

I can’t even call it a home because it wasn’t.

All you could see was the skeleton of an overturned trailer. It used to be Mayra Jimenez’s home.

“I’m still thinking I’m in a nightmare, Jimenez said. “I lost everything.”

Her belongings were strewn hundreds of feet away, the tin walls were crumpled like aluminum foil. It’s hard to believe anyone inside could have survived that.

But, Mayra and her 10-month-old granddaughter did.

“It was really loud, my windows blew out and then I just said, whatever is God’s will, will happen… if I live, I live,” Jimenez recalled.

She told me she took refuge on her couch, squeezing her granddaughter tight. Mayra couldn’t recall too much of the moments the tornado hit but does remember waking up, pinned beneath her trailer. It wasn’t until a passerby heard her screaming for help that she and her granddaughter were freed.

“I don’t understand how the tornado picked Yaupon Cove,” Jimenez said.

Speaking with Mayra, I was surprised by how positive she seemed. She told me she may have lost everything but she is just thankful she and her granddaughter made it out alive.

“I was expecting rain and hail and maybe a little wind, but not a full Wizard of Oz tornado,” Jimenez joked.

RELATED: How rare was Wednesday’s Onalaska twister? You might be surprised.

I then met up with Dan Reilly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Reilly told us preliminary findings indicated the tornado that descended on this little community had caused EF-2 damage. Reilly told us NWS has crews surveying the damage from this tornado all the way into Louisiana and their findings would be compiled into a complete report.

One thing that’s always inspiring to me is how a community rallies around one another after the disaster. It’s a team effort to make sure everyone is coping.

Throughout the day, we saw people riding around on golf carts and four-wheelers, towing pallets of water, meals and snacks – asking if their neighbors were in need. It’s that type of tight-knit community action that keeps spirits raised during some of the toughest of times. Mine included.