Tuesday marks one year since a powerful tornado swept through the city of Jacksboro, located about an hour west of Fort Worth.
The EF-3 twister had winds around 140 to 150 mph, tearing off roofs and flipping cars like toys.
This week, residents in the city of over 4,000 people are reflecting on their recovery since the storm.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year,” said Jacksboro ISD superintendent Brad Burnett. “As we reflect back, I just feel very blessed, very fortunate that I live in this community. There was a lot of support from our community to get our students back in class.”
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When the tornado tore through the city, it not only ripped apart homes but it severely damaged two schools. It did about $18 million worth of damage to both Jacksboro High School and elementary school, which is luckily covered by the district’s insurance.
“Our buildings were damaged in a matter of seconds, but it’s going to take days weeks months, and even years to get things back to what we would consider normal,” said Burnett.
A year ago to the day, principal Michael Qualls was running through the halls of Jacksboro Elementary School, searching for anyone left behind as the storm approached.
“You have those out-of-body experiences,” he recalls. “We thank God that we’re able to look back and reflect that nobody was injured.”
The viral video caught debris falling around him the moment the school’s gym was wiped out by the tornado. Moments before it hit, parents had arrived for their usual pick-up time for students and were rushed into the building by staff, teachers and even the city’s police chief, Scott Haynes, who was on site.
“It truly took a village,” he said. “As I reflect and look back, I have pride in my kids and my staff. Not only did they save those kids' lives that day and those parents, they have overcome and they are just resilient.”
It’s been a year of healing for this community. Recovery has been slow and difficult, but Burnett said it’s something they’ve taken day by day.
"In the immediate aftermath, after the tornado, debris removal and emergency repairs happened for a week quickly. We were able to see a lot of progress. Our main goal was to get students back into their classrooms as quickly as possible," he said. "We were able to get our elementary students back into their classrooms within five weeks after the tornado, which I thought was pretty miraculous.”
Burnett said the school board gave him emergency authorization to approve contracts to clean up the debris from the schools in the month that followed. Temporary structures and other measures were added to cover the gymnasiums at both schools to prevent rainwater from getting in.
After months of approving bids for contractors, the school district has been working through supply chain issues for materials like steel before new construction can begin soon.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve approved all the bids, materials have been ordered, we’re waiting for the materials to be delivered and construction will start within the month at the elementary campus,” said Burnet. “They’ve already started demolition here at the high school gym.”
Students at the elementary school have been using the playground, music room and even cafeteria space for PE time. Sometimes the school is able to bus students to a nearby community center for more physical education activities.
The high school’s Tiger Stadium, which was heavily damaged by the tornado, was repaired just in time to welcome the new football season this past fall.
"Our city and county leaders have pledged support to get the schools back up and running as quickly as possible. I just had a tremendous amount of support from the Jacksboro community,” Burnett said. “We had a lot of our high school students go out and help with clean up. That really made me proud to see.”
Elsewhere in the city, entire homes still look the same as the day the tornado hit.
“There’s been some suffering and we’ve tried to stay as motivated as we can,” said Chief Haynes. “We came back to school from spring break and it was just a normal day. Then that afternoon, things just escalated with the weather. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year now.”
City leaders say at least a dozen residents haven’t rebuilt because of problems with insurance or contractors. Some were underinsured while others are still waiting for insurance claim money.
Some had no choice but to walk away from a total loss and start over. But many were able to rebuild and move forward.
“Our building code department over the year has issued about 30 permits for renovations or new builds. So we are making progress, but we have a long ways to go,” said Chief Haynes.
Even the city animal shelter, which was completely destroyed in the storm, is getting new life. The city just broke ground on a brand-new building that is under construction now and should be completed in a matter of months.
Going into another storm season still brings a lot of fear.
“Anytime there’s ever severe weather predicted now following the tornado, everyone is on edge, obviously,” said Burnett.
“Just as recently as last week we were under a tornado watch,” said Chief Haynes. “When I talk to her counselors about this kind of stuff, those kids are still struggling with that.”
Principal Qualls said his school still goes through drills and prepares for any potential storm.
“We as adults, we also have those fears and anxiety, so just telling the kids that this is OK. This is normal. And talking them through it and just loving on them," he said. “But our staff, you can just see it -- there's love and passion to protect their kids.”
He knows his community is stronger on the other side of what they went through last year.
“We take care of each other," he said. “We hope we never have to go through anything like that again obviously, but we also are better prepared and we know the steps that it takes.”
On Tuesday night, the community is gathering for a night of remembrance ceremony. It starts at 7 p.m. at Jacksboro Middle School auditorium.
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