North Texas Daily

Founding Mayborn dean, residents recuperate after tornado

Founding Mayborn dean, residents recuperate after tornado

January 07
14:57 2016

Matt Payne | Copy Editor


The North Texas cold front on the evening of Dec. 26 brought more than a 30 degree drop for Mitch Land and his family.

Several of Mitch’s family members gathered at their recently-built home in Rowlett, awaiting the couple’s D-FW Airport arrival from Virginia. The fully-furnished home was part of a new residency upon their retirement.

Neither Mitch nor his wife Lea are strangers to the North Texas locale. Not only are the Lands UNT alumni, but Mitch is also the founding dean for the Mayborn School of Journalism.

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

The water tower in Rowlett remains standing on Martha Lane. Cables have been hooked to the tower and police have blocked off the streets near the tower until it has been stabilized. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Upon arrival at D-FW airport from Virginia, Mitch received a text from his daughter, Mae-Beth.

“When she told me what happened, I thought she was playing a game,” Mitch said.

A pitch-black sky, the screaming blare of sirens and a rattling garage door.

Mitch and his wife had anticipated an evening of opening Christmas gifts and catching up with family members usually located far apart. Among the 22 relatives gathered in their recently-constructed Rowlett home, Mitch and Lea were most excited to see their son Andrew for the first time in four years.

Their plans were drastically changed when a category EF-4 tornado ripped through the town, leaving over $1 billion in damages and 11 dead. In the aftermath of the Rowlett tornado, the Lands’ household was completely destroyed.

“You never think something so disastrous like this will actually happen to you,” Mitch said. “My heart especially breaks for those who lost their lives.”

Through the initial whiplash of the storm, the family huddled in one of the home’s hallways outside the laundry room. The roof was torn off. What Mitch’s family described was far longer than the actual two minutes. All the 22 could do was brace each gust of wind tearing the home asunder in the 4 feet by 15 feet hallway, and hope.

Two minutes passed. The family of the Lands were in the eye of the storm. They gathered what they could and fled to the home of one of Mitch’s sons in Richardson.

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

A house on Harbor Drive is marked as an unsafe structure after a tornado went through the Rowlett residential area on Dec. 26, 2015. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Among those killed by the tornado, none of his 22 relatives died or were injured.

Mitch and Lea are currently residing in a hotel located about five miles away from their former home in Rockwall. Because of work obligations, Mitch will have to return to Virginia alone while Lea stays in Texas, working out the situation with their insurance company.

Lea is also staying to aid her daughter, Mae-Beth, whose home was destroyed by the tornado as well.

“All that was lost were material things,” Mitch said. “And I’m just so thankful that everybody made it out okay.”

Another perspective

Among those who also faced the brunt of the storm head-on were Fernando Alvizo, his wife, his two daughters ages 6 and 10, and their pet dog and rabbit.

“None of us were expecting the weather to be what it was like,” Alvizo said. “I wanted to be ready for the worst, but I don’t think anybody was ready for the severity that came.”

The Alvizos were visiting the church they attend regularly, Spring Creek Fellowship. Alvizo is a chaplain there. Usually, whenever service is complete, the Alvizos check out with their children in a designated area.

But that day, all children were moved into the church’s auditorium as a precaution for the oncoming severe weather. Parents were told by counselors to either stay while the storm made its way through the city of Rowlett, or leave of their own accord. Since the Alvizos live close to the church and had a habit of letting their children visit with their grandparents each week, they decided to leave for the day.

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Martha Lane in Rowlett Texas is one of the most affected areas Rowlett. It remains marked off as a crime scene due to down power lines and the unstable water tower. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

The Alvizos’ Saturday evening preparing dinner with their grandparents as any night after church would be was interrupted by a TV report that the weather was getting perilous. They found themselves hastily speeding to their home and huddled inside a closet for more than an hour.

As Alvizo’s wife, two children, pets and himself nestled into the safety of the closet’s darkness, Alvizo was stricken by the series of events he did not witness, but heard.

“The wall of the storm sounded exactly like a freight train looming, there’s no better way to describe it,” Alvizo said. “And once we were in the eye of the storm – silence. Silence, except for the distinct tearing of the house being torn apart.”

The storm passed. The Alvizos’ closet was intact, but the same clothes inside the closet that had shielded them were now surrounded by debris. The Alvizo family was starting to run out of air.

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

If not for the nearly dozen of individuals scouting the leveled residentials of Rowlett, the Alvizos would have suffocated.

The succession of events Alvizo and his family went through following the storm were overwhelmingly positive. The family has had good Samaritans in legion spontaneously aid them in salvaging through rubble and providing rides to and from the affected area. One unknown individual dropped $200 in cash into their laps during a bank visit as they established an account for home reparations.

“I feel this disaster has shown the true nature of how we as humans are supposed to act,” Alvizo said. “Instead of feeling defeated, I feel victorious.”

The Aftermath

The Lands and Alvizos now face reparations and the repercussions of forced separation. Mitch remains resolute, with the aid of hundreds working in tandem with non-profit organizations like Operation Blessings and the Salvation Army.

Helping empower the several volunteers working with the nonprofits to better serve those affected by the tornado is the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC), led by founder Joe Hillis and several other volunteers.

Hillis has been involved in more than 60 recovery efforts. He has witnessed victims recovering from circumstances on a wide spectrum of severity but is surprised by the overwhelming resilience of Rowlett citizens and their ability to band together.

“These events are always sobering,” Hillis said. “But I’ve never seen so many people come together and tirelessly work to rebuild. It speaks magnitudes to the level of resiliency these people have.”

Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Homeowner Ima Allen embraces volunteer Pam Burge as they salvage personal belongings from home days after the tornado. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

The ITDRC, an all-volunteer organization, provides a wide array of technology to victims of disaster, including but not limited to computers, mobile phones and wifi hotspots. Hillis’ coalition has also implemented a system not unlike a Craigslist for disaster situations. Victims can post necessities they are looking for, such as clothing, toiletries and food. Conversely, donors are able to post what they can provide through the system based on the venues the nonprofits are working out of.

There is self-described sorrow for the victims of the tornado that tore through Garland, Rowlett and other areas, and namely, for those who lost their life. Even so, citizens, with the unprompted aid from several hundred individuals, find themselves looking to the future.

“How strong the community has come together to help all who were affected brings me to tears,” Mitch said. “It almost makes going through all of this worth it.”

Featured Photo: Flags were placed on damaged houses in Rowlett as a symbol of strength. Over 140 homes in Rowlett were damaged and 39 destroyed. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

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