It has been an exceptionally long two years for Hector Gajardo and his family. December 26, 2015, tornadoes tore across North Texas. One of them took his house and barely spared his life.
“My family and I were hiding under the stairs, we were praying,” said Gajardo. “At one point, I thought that’s it.”
Gajardo says talking about that day is hard. Since the tornado, his family has shared a tiny guest house on his property while rebuilding their home. Two years later, it’s close to complete. All he needs is a final inspection before moving his family back in.
In spite of his family’s struggle to rebuild, Gajardo donated the use of his land for an artist to build a sculpture that will eventually be the centerpiece of a memorial to the Rowlett tornado response.
“It’s going to be a reminder of what we were able to accomplish with my family and the friends and everybody that got involved,” said Gajardo.
The artist, Troy Connatser of Rowlett, agrees.
“We wanted to represent Rowlett moving forward, not forgetting, but moving forward and moving past it,” said Connatser.
The sculpture is made of steel and contains parts of a water tower that was damaged in the tornado. It depicts a Phoenix rising from a tornado, instead of ashes. When it’s complete, it will stand at 30 feet tall.
Over the last two years, Steve Walker headed up Rowlett Strong, raising money for the Rebuild Rowlett, a long-term recovery fund which helped individuals who were impacted by the tornado. Now, Walker says his focus is shifting to thanking the first responders who helped Rowlett in the aftermath.
This spring, he plans to open a grant application to allow first responders in need to apply for help to get through a crisis.
In nearby Garland, city officials report most of the damaged structures have been repaired or rebuilt. After the storm, Garland noted more than 1,100 structures that were affected by the tornado. Of those structures, 527 were considered uninhabitable immediately after the tornadoes.
Two years later, the number has fallen to 22 buildings that have not been rebuilt, though the sites have been cleared to either a vacant lot or slab. Twelve buildings are still under construction. One house is damaged with no repairs made. The city expects it will be demolished early next year.
“For those individual families and those individual households, normal is probably a long ways away,” said Dorothy White with the City of Garland. “There’s an emotional recovery that’s a different discussion. From the standpoint of the neighborhood itself coming back together and things being in place and becoming more normal, yes, we really have made remarkable progress.”
The outbreak on December 26, 2015 produced 12 confirmed tornadoes. It killed nine people in Garland, one person in Rowlett, two people in Copeville and one infant in Blue Ridge. The tornadoes also cut a path of destruction across Ovilla, Red Oak and Glenn Heights.
There were only 10 other times in recorded history in which North Texas saw a tornado in the month of December.