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One year later: The night of the Oct. 20 tornado then and now This article has
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Some parts of Dallas still look like the tornado just blew through yesterday, and all while the city grapples with a virus that has killed thousands and sickened even more.

It was around 9 p.m. on a Sunday last October when Rachael Gutknecht’s ears started to hurt.

Gutknecht had just gotten home from a weekend trip, and she wondered if maybe she was coming down with something so she went to bed early.

Suddenly, Gutknecht heard the wind pick up outside her apartment in northwest Dallas. Her bedroom window rattled.

“This is kind of freaky,” she recalled. “Is it going to break? I think it’s going to break. Then all of the sudden it shattered.”

Then an HVAC system crashed through the roof.

In 32 minutes on Oct. 20, 2019, a massive tornado upended the lives of hundreds of North Texans.

At its peak strength, the tornado was up to three-quarters of a mile wide with winds up to 140 mph. It tore a 15-mile path from Dallas to Richardson last fall, leaving several hundred people without jobs, homes, schools or churches, and resulting in an estimated $2 billion in insured losses.

Whether it was because the tornado struck on a Sunday night, when many were home watching the Dallas Cowboys game, or just luck, remarkably no lives were lost. But the recovery would not be swift for those whose homes or businesses were affected.

Then the pandemic crept in slowly and lingered.

A year later, many homes and businesses affected by the tornado have yet to rebuild. Others have had to relocate completely. Some parts of Dallas still look like the tornado blew through yesterday, and all while the city grapples with a virus that has killed thousands and sickened even more.

The forecasters

Tornadoes are unique weather events because they’re so unpredictable. They can spin up quickly and peter out. Or, in the case of last year’s tornado, they can ebb and flow, strengthen and weaken, miss one home and devastate another next door. In the Preston-Royal shopping center, for example, businesses on the south side of Royal were destroyed, while shops across the street were left largely unscathed.

Tornadoes are measured based on the Enhanced Fujita Scale from 0 to 5, which rates twisters based on estimated wind speeds and damage. The October tornado was the first EF-3 tornado in the city of Dallas since May 26, 1976.

While meteorologists can predict which weather conditions will favor tornado development, they don’t know whether there’s actually a tornado on the ground until it has been spotted by a storm chaser or until radar indicates rotation.

KXAS-TV (NBC5) chief meteorologist Rick Mitchell said the Storm Prediction Center highlighted the possibility of severe weather in North Texas two days before the tornado hit.

“It’s not like you’re sitting there going, ‘Oh, you know, we’re gonna have an F-3 tornado on Sunday,’” Mitchell said. “I immediately thought, ‘Well, we’ll be working on Sunday.’”

More than 15 hours before the tornado first touched down that night, the National Weather Service also was eyeing the possibility of severe weather, said Jason Dunn, a meteorologist with the agency’s Fort Worth office.

As the weekend progressed, that threat increased.

By the time Dunn started his shift at 4 p.m. Sunday, the high temperature that day had reached 88 degrees, more than 10 degrees above normal for that time of the year, creating heat that could help fuel the intensity of a thunderstorm later that day.

Three hours later, two thunderstorms started to develop west of Fort Worth.

“They really kind of took off, and once that happened, you know that things will probably continue from that point on," Dunn said.

At 7:13 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for all of North Texas. The watch meant conditions were favorable for tornado development, but none had been spotted at that time. The weather service cautioned that storms could produce damaging winds and hail, and that a few tornadoes were possible.

“What would normally be a really busy day in the office was surprisingly quiet,” Dunn said, adding that usually they get a lot of phone calls from storm spotters, reporting things like wind damage and possible funnel clouds.

Over the next couple of hours, those storms would move east toward Dallas-Fort Worth, prompting the weather service to issue several severe thunderstorm warnings across the area.

Just before 9 p.m., Dunn could see what looked like a debris showing up on weather radars — often a telltale sign that there is a tornado on the ground or that a storm is showing signs of rotation that could produce a tornado.

At 9 p.m., the weather service issued a tornado warning for North Dallas, south Richardson, Garland and Rowlett. The warning said radars were indicating that a tornado had formed. By then, according to the final storm report, the tornado had already been on the ground for two minutes, beginning its devastating sweep of damage.

But until that point, Mitchell was providing updates via NBC5′s digital app and online, while the Dallas Cowboys game aired on TV.

“Once we saw that debris ball, at that point, it’s like, ‘OK, come on, you know, we gotta go,’” Mitchell said, as his team prepared to break into the Cowboys game.

The path

Once on the ground, the twister was hard to spot in the darkness of the night. In videos on social media from that night, the tornado can only be seen during flashes of lightning.

After wrecking Gutknecht’s apartment on Rickshaw Drive in northwest Dallas, the tornado moved east.

It tore through parts of a shopping center at the corner of Walnut Hill and Marsh lanes, slammed into the First Mexican Baptist Church and, slightly farther east down Walnut Hill, blasted into Northway Church.

The tornado then hit Thomas Jefferson High School before tracking northeast. As it moved toward the Dallas North Tollway, the tornado leveled trees and swirled debris around.

It caused the ceiling to cave in at Interabang Books in the Preston-Royal shopping center, and it wrecked homes along Royal Lane. It mangled a metal fence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, and braked for no one as it crossed traffic on U.S. Highway 75 before slamming directly into Home Depot on Forest Lane, where it toppled the front entrance.

It continued to move northeast into Richardson. More than 15 miles from where it started, east of Arapaho and Jupiter roads, tree damage was consistent with 70 mph winds, indicating that the tornado had weakened to an EF-0 before it dissipated.

Gutknecht didn’t realize a tornado had just blown through her neighborhood. Once it passed, her ears stopped hurting, but by then, she had new worries.

A group of firefighters came by and told her she needed to evacuate her apartment because it was uninhabitable. Then another group of firefighters told her not to leave because of downed power lines throughout the neighborhood.

So she stayed. Then it started raining again.

“Water came through everywhere,” Gutknecht said, describing how it poured through the roof.

In total, 10 tornadoes moved through the North Texas area that night. Dallas was in the clear after the EF-3 tornado, but it did see another line of storms and strong downpours shortly after midnight, according to Dunn.

“We did get more severe weather overnight,” Dunn said. “A lot of people forget about that.”

Gutknecht grabbed important papers she knew she would need and a Bible given to her by her grandmother, who died in 2001, and she left her apartment.

“We walked away not knowing what would be there when we got back,” Gutknecht said.

Down the street from Gutknecht, members and staff of Northway Church were getting a first glimpse at the damage on their campus, which had its commissioning service just 21 days earlier.

“The first thing I saw was the sanctuary, and I knew it had sustained major damage,” said Matt Younger, the church’s ministry leadership pastor.

In video about that night, Younger recalled calling Shea Sumlin, the church’s lead pastor, and telling him, “It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?” Sumlin asked him.

Last night the church building suffered a direct hit from a tornado that came through northwest Dallas. Thankfully no...

Posted by Northway Church on Monday, October 21, 2019

“The church,” Younger said.

“I didn’t even take time for explanation, all I said is, ‘I’m on my way,’” Sumlin said.

With streets blocked off because of damage, Sumlin had some trouble getting to the church that night, but when he finally got there, he saw the roof of the sanctuary had been torn off.

But something else stuck with him that night.

“Two distinct noises hit me,” Sumlin said. “One was that of chainsaws, and the other was that of people weeping.”

For all the damage the tornado created that night, the lack of serious injuries or deaths is striking.

Mitchell said several factors could have played a role: The weather service had forecasted it hours ahead, it was a Sunday night when more people would be at home, and the Cowboys were playing in prime time.

A worse-case scenario could have been an EF-3 tornado hitting Dallas during rush hour on a weekday or overnight when people would be asleep.

“There’s no doubt that just being Sunday night was beneficial,” Mitchell said. “The Cowboys game was gravy.”

A year later

These days, a gust of wind is enough to make Gutknecht nervous.

Around mid-March, Gutknecht was settled into a new home, not too far from the one that was damaged by the tornado. Then the pandemic hit, changing life for virtually everyone.

“For the tornado, there were things to do,” Gutknecht said, things like calling insurers and looking for a new home. “With the pandemic, you just feel hopeless.”

Still, she considers herself lucky in some ways. She knows people who lost more. If she had been doing her laundry just a few minutes earlier that night, the HVAC system that collapsed through the roof could have fallen on her.

“It’s been an emotionally-charged year,” Gutknecht said.

At Northway Church, Sumlin says he wouldn’t change anything.

“In many ways, the tornado was a lot easier because at least we were all in it together,” Sumlin said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, much like places of worship across the country, the church went home, worshiping online where it was safer.

With masks and social distancing, members of Northway Church are now able to worship together again — albeit not in their sanctuary, which still looks like the tornado struck yesterday.

The tornado and the pandemic were nothing alike, but in some ways they were, said Jamie Moore of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, which sustained substantial damage.

“A pandemic doesn’t tear off your roof,” Moore said. “They compare in that it’s such a disruption. They’re both very disruptive and both very destructive.”

Jesus Jimenez, Staff Writer. Jesus Jimenez began working for The Dallas Morning News in 2018. He currently covers weather and how climate affects Dallas-Fort Worth. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas.

@jesus_jimz

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