After devastating tornadoes, Sanderson residents begin to rebuild and recover

Earlier this month, Sanderson residents were surprised when a pair of tornadoes struck the rural community. Now, nearly three weeks later, the cleanup efforts continue.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioJune 24, 2024 9:00 am,

From Marfa Public Radio:

It’s been nearly three weeks since two tornadoes hit the small town of Sanderson in Terrell County.

And since then, bulldozers and work crews have been sorting through wreckage in the Lomita Terrace neighborhood on the west side of town — the area hit hardest by the storm. According to the Texas Division of Emergency Management, at least 15 buildings were destroyed or sustained heavy damage across the community. Twelve people were injured in the storm, but no deaths were reported.

Walking through a field, Terrell County Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland surveyed the damage.

“Tin everywhere, wood everywhere, debris everywhere. I mean look at that, quarter-inch steel almost twisted in a knot — look how it’s making an S,” he said, pointing to a mangled frame of a mobile home.

Crews from Reeves County clear debris from destroyed homes.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

The tornadoes came as a complete surprise to Cleveland and others in Sanderson. He assumed the severe weather would pass by — so when Cleveland looked up and saw a twister he was, “shocked, I mean it was so surreal.”

According to the National Weather Service, the tornadoes only touched down for about six minutes. In that time though, the storms caused enough damage to knock out electricity and running water across the community for days.

Despite the devastation, Cleveland said people from across the region rushed to support Sanderson.

“Just an overwhelming amount of support both locally and externally from communities throughout West Texas,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

In the aftermath of the tornadoes, first responders quickly set out to help, locals helped salvage photos and other personal possessions, and they even provided home-cooked meals for each other.


The storms destroyed a welcome sign in Sanderson, leaving a lone cowboy to gaze out over the remaining horizon.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Now, Terrell County Judge Dale Carruthers is trying to figure out what’s needed to prepare for the next disaster.

“Sirens, that’s the main thing [the town needs] because our system is extremely old,” she said, explaining that the system also needed to be expanded “to the west and to the east into the [county].”

There are only a few hundred people living in Sanderson and there aren’t a lot of resources either, the town doesn’t even have a grocery store. Still, Carruthers said she is dedicated to “doing whatever we have to do to make sure the town is fortified.”

That includes looking for money to go towards updating local tornado sirens and purchasing generators for the town’s emergency services.

“Little things that people take for granted because they have them,” she said. “In a financially strapped community, we don’t have them, so hopefully we’ll be able to get them.”

Resources are top of mind for locals like Jake Harper. He and his wife run Ferguson Motors, a former car dealership that is now a coffee shop and café. The historic building lost whole sections of its roof and windows were shattered during the storm — but after days of working, Harper’s cleaned up the shop enough so it can partially reopen.

He said the work left him “physically exhausted, sunburnt, you know, covered in nicks and cuts and bruises from just a ton of extra work.”

Jake Harper, who runs Ferguson Motors, a coffee shop, was able to clean up the store enough to be able to reopen and serve coffee again.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

When we spoke, the coffee shop was set to open the next day, which was good news for his family who relies on the business as well as the locals who use Ferguson Motors as a community space. Still, a whole section of the shop is closed off because it’s filled with rubble.

Harper doesn’t know how long it will take to get the store back to what it was before the tornadoes.

“Anywhere it would be a financial burden to fix this, out here it can be more so. You know, West Texas you have to bring [craftsmen] in, you’ve got to bring materials in, everything takes longer,” he said.

Multiple fundraisers have been started to help those most affected in Sanderson. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been on the ground assessing needs.

Harper is trying to take it one step at a time.

“There’s no way to take it in all at once, there’s no way to fix it all at once.” He said, “We can’t have all the answers all at once — so, we’re just doing what we can every day to move forward.”

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