Storm Survivors From Canton Make Sense Of The Tornadoes, Begin To Clean Up

East Texas tornadoes leave at least four dead.

By Stella M. ChavezMay 1, 2017 7:29 am, , ,

For those who live in north Texas, or even in neighboring states, first Mondays have a special significance. They signal the opening of a massive monthly flea market in Canton, about 50 miles east of Dallas. Known as First Monday Trade Days, it’s the biggest flea market in the world. The market has been in Canton for more than 150 years.

Despite the name, First Monday Trade Day actually opens on the weekend prior to the first Monday of the month. That means that what happened in Canton this weekend could have been a lot worse. But as it was, it was awful.  

Saturday afternoon, shoppers took shelter as a line of storms pushed through Van Zandt, Henderson and Rains counties, spawning at least four deadly tornados. One ripped right through Canton, leaving a path of destruction nearly 35 miles long, flipping trucks at a local car dealership and causing hundreds of homes, businesses and churches to collapse.

At last check, at least four people were reported killed and 50 others were injured by the north Texas twisters. The tornadoes were part of a larger storm system that stretched across the nation’s midsection – all the way up to the Great Lakes. The storms are blamed for at least five more deaths in Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi. Storm teams have been searching through the debris and trying to get a sense of the scale of the damage.

This story from KERA’s Stella M. Chavez looks at how the tornadoes that swept across northeast Texas over the weekend affected people in Canton.

Four people died, dozens were hurt and thousands of homes felt the impact of tornadoes that tore through east Texas Saturday night. The folks that bore the brunt of the storms were in and around the town of Canton, an hour east of Dallas.

Cason Cole, 18, was at his friend’s trailer when they heard the rain and lightning. He says they didn’t think the tornado would be as bad as it was. So they decided to go for a drive. He was in one car. His friend in another.

“And it’s sprinkling a little bit and then like in a matter of like probably 30 seconds, it just gets gray because of how hard the rain’s comin’ down and we’re watching the trees in front of us – they’re hittin’ the road, then comin’ back up,” Cole says.

His friend tried to swerve out of the way and ended up in the ditch. The storm was getting worse. Cole and his friend were terrified.

“We didn’t know what to do and then the trees they were falling down and stuff, so we put it in reverse and we’re starting to back up,” he says. “Then we hear this loud sound and a tree had fallen behind us. So we’re like trapped right in there in this little like gap.”

When they finally got out their cars, the road had flooded. The water was up to their waists. Cole knew they shouldn’t have been there, but he’s also glad they didn’t stay at his friend’s place. It was demolished.

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Texas Standard spoke with Carlina Villalpando, managing editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph about the Canton tornado’s aftermath. 

“Everyone our reporters and photographers talked to yesterday has been through tornadoes, being in east Texas. But they have never seen or heard of anything like this,” Villalpando says. 

Governor Greg Abbott was in Canton on Sunday, and Villalpando says the governor said he had heard unconfirmed reports of a tornado on the ground that was 50 miles long. If true, she says, the tornado would span the entire Van Zandt County area. 

“There was no indication outside of the rain that anything out of the ordinary was happening,” Villalpando says. Because many people lost power, they were unaware a tornado was on its way, she says. 

More than 5,000 structures were destroyed or damaged in the storm. Villalpando says much of the damage occurred outside the city of Canton, in rural areas.

“[First responders] are having to go door-to-door…looking at every structure, looking for people to bring to rescue.” Villalpando says. “Cell phone service was spotty. Power was out across the entire community. So if you’re looking for loved-ones, you’re not getting them on the cell phone, trying to call in for aid…it was just a disastrous event. And very hard to communicate for those rescuers trying to identify the structures where people might be.”

Villalpando says recovery will take time. Surveying and damage assessments will take days, and full cleanup could be weeks away.

People wanting to help Canton residents should not send supplies, Villalpando says, because there is currently nowhere to store them. Officials are currently collecting tarps and water to meet immediate needs, however.

Villalpando says monetary donations will be the most helpful to those affected by the tornadoes, and that details about where to send contributions will probably become available within a day or two.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.