Curtis Haley was pacing around the barn, pulling down shades over windows in anticipation of the impending storm, when he saw the dark, spiraling funnel cloud headed his way.
He set his half-full can of Dos Equis down on the bar, used by guests during wedding receptions held inside the picturesque structure of wood and metal, which has large sliding doors that open up to acres of flowing prairies and the Brazos River. He ran across his property, past cattle and interconnecting fences and small sheds, to the underground storm cellar by the main house. He shuffled down the steps and pulled the door shut tight behind him.
Above him, the world tossed and turned with fury, tearing through the five-year-old wedding venue, the Barn on the Brazos, he started with his wife, Cathy Haley, in Blum. When Curtis stepped outside as the storm cleared, the structures he had been inspecting only minutes earlier were reduced to rubble, Cathy said.
The full scope of the damage became even clearer in the light of day Tuesday morning.
Curtis and Cathy were joined by friends and family as they carefully stepped through the ranch littered with debris. The barn for the receptions, situated near the front gate, had a missing sheet of metal in its roof, and bits of wood and glass covered the floor. Directly across the dirt road, a shed used for storage and woodworking had three-fourths of its roof open to the sky. The outdoor wedding area — filled with wooden pews, arches and a pair of barn doors — was turned into a debris field.
Up past the wedding area was the house where the bride and groom have had the option of staying together before their wedding day. It’s the same house that Curtis’ parents used in the 1980s for their cattle and meat business, Haley’s Feed Lot, and then later lived in during their retirement until they died.
It was perhaps the hardest-hit structure — the roof had flown off and walls had toppled over. Curtis’ Ford pickup, which he got when he was 16, was surrounded by the remains of the garage.
“It’s the history of my husband’s family,” Cathy told the Star-Telegram on the property on Tuesday. “It’s just — sad’s the only word that comes to me.”
That history was spread out across their acres of land on Tuesday. Scraps of wood, jumbles of bricks and balls of pink insulation covered the grass, as well as little knick-knacks like a lamp and a door-knob. Twisted sheets of metal hung from tree branches like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks.
The damage came from one of five confirmed tornadoes that touched down in North Texas on Monday night as part of a storm system that was pushing east through the region. The damage in Blum, in northwestern Hill County, was caused by an EF-2 tornado with wind speeds up to 130 mph about 7:25 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The other major tornado — also an EF-2 — was in Ellis County between Waxahachie and Forreston, where an estimated 25 to 50 homes and other buildings were damaged. Five people in homes and three people in vehicles were injured, but no fatalities were reported. The Ellis County Sheriff’s Office said the damage was mainly along Highway 77.
Three brief EF-0 tornadoes, with wind speeds between 65-85 mph and varying degrees of damage, were confirmed in the eastern part of Granbury in Hood County, far southeastern Johnson County just east of Grandview, and northern Collin County south of Weston between 6 and 8 p.m. Granbury reported significant damage to a drive-in move theater and a church, while Johnson County reported no damage and Collin County reported minor damage to trees and powerlines.
Tom Hemrick, Hill County Emergency Management coordinator, said the only significant damage reported in the county was that at Barn on the Brazos, at 533 Hill County Road 1114 near the Johnson County line.
‘You can always rebuild’
The hardest thing for Cathy Haley, she said, was to have to inform the future brides and grooms about what the tornado had done to their sprawling ranch. A couple who was planning to have a wedding at the ranch this weekend were able to quickly book a replacement venue.
Those walking the grounds on Tuesday were mourning what they had lost, and plotting how they might be able to get it back. Curtis, who didn’t want to be interviewed, was busy working alongside several other men who were tending to the downed power lines. He still operates a cattle business in addition to the wedding venue.
At one point on Tuesday, looking out over the debris, Cathy dropped her head into the shoulder of her brother-in-law, Brad Levy, and began to cry.
He told her to focus on the fact that everyone was safe, from Curtis — the only person on the ranch when the tornado swept through — to the cattle and three dogs that were also on the property.
“I said, ‘There’s no lives lost,’” Levy said. “‘You can always rebuild. You can’t rebuild your life.’”
As everyone toured the ranch, trying not to disturb anything for insurance purposes, they became like detectives trying to figure out how items wound up where they landed. A tractor tire, constructed of metal, blew from the reception area to the wedding area. A large outdoor heater was tossed across the road.
What was especially perplexing were the spots that were completely undisturbed. For instance, Curtis’ beer — the one he sat down on the bar before seeing the twister — was exactly how he left it.
Connie Nelson, a close friend of Cathy’s, said one blessing in all this is that Curtis decided to put a sturdier door on the storm shed only two weeks ago.
“This was definitely God’s hand,” she said.
Cathy hopes she can get back to arranging weddings soon, a profession she has been enamored with since she was a little girl, and one that has helped her over the past few years to gain lifelong friends.
A couple who are planning a wedding at the Barn on the Brazos in two weeks have said they will be hosting their wedding there, no matter how they have to do it.
“It’s huge for us, because we really do pride ourselves on customer service and taking care of them, and making their day,” Cathy said. “They do become like family.”
Destruction in Granbury
Jennifer Miller, who has owned Granbury’s Brazos Drive-In Theatre since 1986, is no stranger to picking up the pieces after a storm blows through. Wind gusts have torn off parts of her outdoor screen in the past, leading to thousands of dollars in damages.
But Miller was surprised by the destruction left in the wake of Monday night’s storm, which ripped off the roof of Crossing Place Church on Highway 377.
Pieces of broken fence were strewn across the drive-in on Tuesday afternoon as Miller awaited an inspection from her insurance company. Miller estimates that putting the fence back in place, along with electricity, signage and labor costs, could add up to $10,000 in repairs. The drive-in’s large outdoor screen was left intact, but Miller said the business will be closed until further notice.
“We’re so vulnerable to the elements, and that’s part of the charm,” Miller said. “Some of it’s probably salvageable. It had to be a tornado because if it would have just hit the fence, it would have laid down, so it had to pick it up and scatter it all around.”
After Miller posted photos of the damages on Facebook, several Hood County residents stepped forward to offer their help and donations. Miller and drive-in manager Sheila Ward joked that they may host a screening of the storm chaser film “Twister” this weekend to raise money for repairs, though they are concerned that another storm could cause more damage on Sunday.
“I was just really surprised because I’ve had this happen before and I’ve never had that many people carrying on and offering so much free help,” Miller said. “Somebody said it best: ‘This is the way I want to see America, where we all support each other. That’s America.’ And that’s true, that’s what we want to see.”
In Ellis County, videos showed that houses lost sections of their roofs and scores of trees were knocked over, the weather service said.
Live video from a KXAS-TV helicopter on Tuesday morning additionally showed homes with entire roofs missing — exposing their wood frames and pink insulation — as well as overturned mobile homes.
The storm also led to a massive crash in Waxahachie, on I-35 near Johnson Road, involving three 18-wheelers, two vans and a truck, officials told WFAA-TV, a Star-Telegram media partner. Photos from the scene showed the 18-wheelers flipped over in the road. Three people were injured, one of them seriously.
A survey team confirmed an EF-2 tornado with winds up to 120 mph occurred in Ellis County from 8:44 to 8:57 p.m. Monday. It tracked 5.2 miles through the area between Waxahachie and Forreston, where it crossed I-35E.
The weather service said the next storm system in the region is expected late this weekend, possibly Sunday night, or early next week, but it’s still too early to predict if there will be severe weather.
Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.
3-Day Storm Outlook
This map shows the 3-day weather outlook for storms by the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. Sources: National Weather Service, Esri.