When disasters strike, like the tornadoes in Hood County and Moore, Okla., recently, our first reaction is to cover the news and answer the questions our readers have in words and pictures, in print and online.
But that’s only the beginning.
Behind every hard news story, there are human stories that need to be told – the news features and followup stories that flesh out the breaking news stories.
Here are two examples that demonstrate how we can tell those human stories. The writer is Kathy Cruz, a reporter for the Hood County News and a consultant for TCCJ.
Kathy explains the background of the stories:
“Interviewing victims of a tragedy can be a challenge. For one thing, we should all want to exhibit sensitivity in those situations. For another thing, victims are oftentimes protected by agencies that swoop in to help and feel it is their duty to keep the media at bay.
“The morning after a tornado devastated the Rancho Brazos neighborhood in Hood County, I went to the First Christian Church in Granbury to cover a meeting about how best to coordinate donations and volunteer efforts. The church was also the site of a Red Cross shelter. Wandering about after the meeting, I could see what appeared to be an intake process, with Red Cross volunteers interviewing people who I assumed were tornado victims. I did not want to approach them “cold,” because I was afraid it might be insensitive and doing so would likely raise alarms with the Red Cross folks.
“I enlisted the help of a man with Habitat for Humanity, who had approached me about putting something in the paper about donations to Habitat. (Many of the victims lived in Habitat homes.) There was one woman in particular who really stood out to me. There was just something about her. Her eyes were red, but I had the feeling it was not so much due to crying but due to trauma. She just looked as if she had a story to tell. The Habitat volunteer approached her on my behalf, and she consented to an interview. My instincts had been right. She DID have quite a story to tell.”
The first story was headlined “I’m going with you: Wife clutches husband as tornado threatens to rip him away.”
By Kathy Cruz
Hood County News
“Our Father who art in Heaven. Hallowed be Thy name.”
In two bathrooms at the Parsons home on Tumbleweed Lane near the Rancho Brazos Community Center, reciting the Lord’s Prayer was the only thing the terrified family knew to do as an EF-4 tornado slammed full force into the four-bedroom brick home.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”
On Sunday afternoon, Marlene Parsons of Quinlan recounted what happened to her son, Eddie, his wife, Bobi, and her grandsons Avery and Anthony the evening that a nightmare dropped straight out of the sky.
Anthony’s friend, Lance, was over visiting. They took refuge in one bathroom; Eddie, Bobi and Avery were in the other. The bathrooms were only a few feet from each other, and they were the only rooms that remained standing.
As Marlene relayed the story to the Hood County News, volunteers in matching T-shirts worked to recover anything of the family’s that was salvageable.
There didn’t appear to be much, although – miraculously – Bobi managed to find the wedding rings of her Meemaw and Paw-Paw, who raised her. It was the only piece of good luck she’s had in a long time.
Atop a mound of debris Bobi sat, lost in her thoughts, methodically sifting through a wreckage of memories.
“I think it’s part of her grieving process,” said Marlene.
We did not disturb her. Instead, we let Marlene tell the family’s story:
Eddie and the boys had been watching the rainstorm, and Eddie was photographing the grapefruit-sized hail. An odd dust storm seemed to appear. It turned into a funnel cloud.
Windows started to implode.
Eddie ordered the boys into the house.
Marlene, seeing a report about violent weather in Hood County on TV, phoned to check on the family. She could hear Bobi shouting for the boys to take cover.
They snatched cushions from the couch as they fled to the bathrooms, away from the glass on the front and back sides of the house. They could see the funnel cloud drop directly over them.
The mighty wind plucked brick after brick off the house. It hurled them like missiles through the air, making ever thinner the barrier between the family and the violent force of nature.
Eddie struggled to get a mattress through the bathroom door to lay over his wife and son.
“Forget the mattress!” Bobi yelled.
She screamed at her husband to shut the door and step into the bathtub with her and Avery before it was too late. When he did, Bobi clutched him in what felt like a death grip.
“You go out with this tornado,” she shouted above the deafening roar, “and I’m going with you.”
Eddie would later tell his mother that he had never felt anything quite like Bobi’s grip that night when she thought the tornado might claim him.
A short distance from where the family was being hit by flying glass and Sheetrock, neighbors were being hurled to their deaths.
When the tornado had passed, Eddie peeked through the bathroom door and looked out into nothingness.
“Everything’s gone. Everything’s gone,” he said.
The night was pitch black, except for the surreal sight of sparking electrical wires whipping in the wind like creatures from a sci-fi movie.
“Anthony! Anthony! Anthony!” Eddie yelled.
Anthony answered. He and his friend were alive.
Eddie then looked up at the sky that had rained down terror and destruction, through the clouds and into what lay beyond.
“Thank you, God,” he said. “I love you, Jesus Christ. I have my family. Nothing else matters.”
The next story was headlined “I saw the tornado coming for us.”
By Kathy Cruz
Hood County News
One minute, Ronna Cotten was watching a spring shower with her two daughters and their friend. The next, she was fighting with all the strength she had to keep them alive.
Cotten, who lives in a Habitat for Humanity home in Rancho Brazos, struggled to keep a grip on the doorknob of the hall closet where the three girls were screaming in terror as powerful winds threatened to suck them into the blackened sky Wednesday evening.
“I just did the best I could,” said Cotten, who attributed the red blotches that appeared on her arms the next day to “nerves.”
In the vortex of violence, the single mother with a slender build somehow managed to get the best of the powerful twister, even as the family’s home on Sundown Trail was ripped apart around her.
“All you could hear was windows breaking and things crashing,” she said. “It was bad.”
By the time the family showed up Thursday morning at the Red Cross shelter at First Christian Church on Highway 377, Cotton looked as if she had been to hell and back.
Fact was, she had.
‘a horror movie’
It was when the hail grew larger that Cotten instructed the girls to head to the hall closet.
The rest happened very, very fast.
“I saw the tornado coming for us,” she said. “I was heading toward the kids when I saw it.”
At that same moment, she said, emergency sirens began blaring.
Inside the closet, they could feel the house shaking and things hitting the other side of the wall.
“We were screaming,” said 14-year-old Cheyenne, a friend of the Cotten girls who attends Acton Middle School. “It happened so fast.”
In a wood frame house not far away, another terrified child huddled in a hallway.
Cindy Wilkerson said that her 10-year-old grandson, Joseph Wilkerson, clung to his mother, Angela. The three had taken refuge in a hallway of Cindy’s home at the corner of Echo Trail and Canyon Road.
Cindy’s garage was destroyed, windows were broken and the roof was damaged – but she knows it could have been much worse.
“On my street, everybody’s house was still standing,” said the occupational home health care worker. “Behind us, and at the end of the street, houses were missing. It’s not something I would want to live through again.”
Wednesday night’s horror was a sobering initiation for Precinct 1 County Commissioner James Deaver, who has only been in office a few months.
While other county officials were busy “standing up” the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Law Enforcement Center, Deaver was asked to head directly to the scene of the devastation.
As a former employee in the county’s Road Operations department, Deaver assisted as 18 Road Ops employees worked to clear roads and check for downed power lines. He phoned in reports to officials at the EOC.
Road Ops Director Donald Linney lives in the neighborhood hit by the storm. His county truck ended up a couple of blocks away from his damaged home.
“It was a three-quarter-ton pickup that was way down in the brush where it had been thrown like a crushed can,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry. He was bemused that Linney was apologetic about having “lost the county truck.”
“That’s Don,” said Berry. “He’s always taking care of the county.”
Deaver said he stayed on the scene until about 2 a.m. Thursday, and was back by 6:30 a.m.
“It looks like a bomb went off over here,” he told the Hood County News from his cell phone at the scene. “It’s awful.”
The commissioner said that the county’s Animal Control department was working to round up displaced pets.
“There was a dog sitting on a foundation like he was waiting on somebody to come back to it,” he said.
“Mouse,” the black Chihuahua owned by the Cottens, was the only possession snatched up by the frightened family as they fled their home.
“It felt like we were in a horror movie,” relayed Breanna, a seventh-grader at AMS.
With the tornado having moved on, the Cottens thought the horror was over.
But it wasn’t.
Victims began gathering at American Legion Post 491, stumbling in the driving rain out of the Rancho Brazos neighborhood via Tumbleweed Trail and Sundown Trail.
The Post had not escaped the storm unscathed. The roof was damaged, and rain was pouring in. Nevertheless, it would have to serve as an interim trauma center.
Emergency responders began laying the most critically wounded on tables that were “strategically placed between the streams” of pouring water, according to Public Safety Chaplain Joe Phillips.
Hood County News photographer Mary Vinson called the scene “surreal.” There was no electricity, only flashlights and emergency lights.
“They evacuated the whole development,” said Vinson. “You could see stretchers and people carrying babies. People were without shoes and shirts. They were bloodied and muddied. At the same time, we could hear the hiss of gas.”
Ronna Cotten said that there were “people walking around with gashed heads.” The legs of a child about 6 or 7 were “all cut up,” she said.
According to Phillips, those whose injuries were non-critical were moved to buses that had been sent by the Granbury Independent School District.
“Ambulances from all over the region were staged for transport,” said Phillips. “As fast as they pulled up, triage staff were packaging and transporting. New patients were arriving via brush truck or whatever they could ride in. You constantly heard ‘Make a hole!’ as new victims arrived or were transported out.”
In the chaos and confusion, the dead were temporarily placed in a shed on Post property.
Ronna Cotten, who works three jobs to support her family, said that she and the girls witnessed the last moments of a man who had suffered a head injury.
“He was standing up at the corner of the building, and his head was cut open. He collapsed,” Cotten said.
She said the girls saw emergency responders zipping the man into a body bag and carrying his body to the shed.
“The kids had to witness all this,” she said. Her youngest daughter, Marissa, is a third-grader at Acton Elementary.
Phillips, who has long worked with Hood County’s emergency teams, said he heard someone comment about not being “ready for this.”
“I say, ‘Not true,’” Phillips wrote in a message to the Hood County News the day after the tornado.
“We didn’t want this, but the emergency services of Hood County were ready for this. Training, meetings, simulations and debriefings — all made these men and women ready to take action and mold chaos into a process.”
Vinson, who has worked with the same crews for years as a photographer for the HCN, said that emergency responders managed, in pitch dark and driving rain, to corral mayhem into “controlled chaos.”
“I think they did an extremely good job,” she said. “All hands were on deck. I’ve watched them in action for 12 years, and they’re at the top of their game.”