Tornado That Tore Apart Rowlett is Now Making It Stronger

It's a few days before Christmas 2016 and Julie Tomko is building gingerbread houses with her niece and nephew. She prefers to spend the holidays this way.

But on the night of Dec. 26, 2015, there was a time when she wondered when her home in Rowlett would be rebuilt.

"We turned on the TV and they said 'If you're in Rowlett, you need to take cover,'" said Tomko.

As an EF4 tornado barreled towards her home, Tomko and her husband hid in a closet. 

"At one point I looked at my husband [and said] 'Do your ears feel funny?'" said Tomko. "And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'I don't think its a good thing.'"

Tomko heard glass breaking but didn't hear the "freight train" noise that many other tornado survivors recall. Still, the damage was clear when she stepped outside.

"The best thing I can compare it to is 'The Wizard of Oz,'" said Tomko. "It was like you walked out and everything was gray and it was so silent. Just this gray midst from the dust."

With her neighborhood in shambles, Tomko reached out to her pastor, Cole Hedgecock of First Baptist Church of Rowlett.

"We heard stories about families that really had experienced the miraculous," said Hedgecock. "There was a story of some teenagers who were home alone. And [after the tornado] they ran out of their house, and they turned around and the only part of that house that was remaining was four stairs and the bottom of the stairwell where they happened to be."

By 1 p.m. the next day the church was set up to receive donations. Donations of diapers, baby food and more items poured into the church, which coordinated relief efforts with four other churches in Rowlett.

Volunteers from as far away as California also showed up. They slept in many quarters of the church's rooms not being used for relief. 

"We had people take off work from Texas, Oklahoma," said Hedgecock. "We had a guy from California come in. People literally from all over the country came in."

The church also provided counselors in addition to supplies and food.

"We had people coming in distraught," said Hedgecock. "Really, they were in shock. They didn't know where they are, where they were, what they were doing, what they needed. They left with a sense of hope. They knew that people cared about them. They knew that people loved them."

"It was a very humbling and exciting thing for us to be able to help those in need," Hedgecock added. "We always felt like we were the ones being blessed by just being in a position to help those."

Tomko also felt the generosity of strangers. She said the tiniest of gestures made a major difference.

"The people who would walk by and say 'Can I go charge your cell phone?'" said Tomko. "We didn't have any cars. Our cars were all totaled. So for someone to sit outside and charge your cell phone, that doesn't seem like a big deal. But it is a big deal in this situation." 

Tomko moved into her rebuilt home just weeks ago. Many of her neighbors will return soon. She said the storm has already inspired them to have more meaningful dialogues.

"Our conversations changed," said Tomko. "It was a deeper conversation of 'Where are you going to live, what are you doing, what do you need?'"

"It was connection on a level of pure human need instead of the quaint little waves and nods as you go back and forth," she said.


First Baptist Church of Rowlett still operates its relief center and will keep it open permanently. The pastor said anyone in need is welcome, their religion does not matter.

"We want it to be a constant place where people in need can come and they can receive help," said Pastor Hedgecock. "We still help people who survived the tornado. But we also have expanded this ministry to where somebody needs potatoes or chicken or macaroni and cheese; or towels or blankets or pillows. Anything from diapers or baby wipes to cleaning supplies, rakes and shovels."

Click on this sentence to link to FBC of Rowlett. The address is 4309 Main Street in Rowlett, Texas.

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