GRANBURY, Texas – Authorities combed through debris in a North Texas town 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth on Thursday while residents awaited the chance to see what was left of their homes. Witnesses described the two badly hit neighborhoods as unrecognizable, with homes ripped from foundations and others merely rubble.
Raul Rodriguez counts himself a lucky man.
For two years, the 42-year-old auto mechanic and his family have enjoyed life in his house in the Rancho Brazos Estates subdivision of the town of Granbury. Built by volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, it was the first home Rodriguez has ever owned.
On Wednesday evening, he was home with his wife and three children when a storm began to rage.
"I looked out the window and thought, 'It doesn't look good,'" he said.
He gathered his family into a hall closet as a savage tornado roared over his neighborhood. All he could hear above the storm's din was the sound of every window in his home shattering.
After the storm passed, he and his family emerged to find his home damaged but still standing.
"I'm surprised. I can't believe it. My wife was the first person out, and injured people, bloody people, started coming to our house, asking us to call 911," he said.
Habitat for Humanity spent years in Granbury's Rancho Brazos Estates subdivision, helping to build many of the 110 homes in the low-income area. But its work was largely undone during an outbreak of 16 tornadoes Wednesday night that killed six people and injured dozens.
Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said Thursday afternoon that two of the dead were women and four of them men; one man and one woman were in their 80s. Six or seven people have not been accounted for, he said at a news conference.
"I'm very confident we'll find those people alive and well," Deeds said, adding that 37 injured people were treated at hospitals. "We're going to keep looking. We're not going to give up until every piece of debris is turned over."
Granbury bore the brunt of the damage. The weather service said the preliminary storm estimate for the Granbury tornado was an EF-4, based on the Fujita tornado damage scale. An EF-5 is the most severe, but an EF-4 tornado has wind speeds of 166 to 200 mph.
Another tornado in nearby Cleburne cut a mile-wide path through part of the city Wednesday. The weather service said it was estimated as an EF-3, which has winds between 136 and 165 mph. No deaths or severe injuries were reported from that tornado.
Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the weather service's severe storm lab in Norman, Okla., said May 15 is the latest into the month that the U.S. has had to wait for its first significant tornadoes of the year. Brooks said he would expect 2013 to be one of the least lethal tornado years since the agency started keeping records in 1954.
Habitat for Humanity's website describes the international organization as a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry that has helped build or repair more than 600,000 houses for more than 3 million people who otherwise could not afford home ownership. The ministry was brought to prominence by the participation of former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Habitat for Humanity homes, built for low-income buyers using volunteer labor and donations, are financed with affordable loans. The nonprofit selects homeowners based on their level of need, willingness to become partners in the program and ability to repay their loan. Homeowners invest their own time into building the homes as well.
Of the homes in the Rancho Brazos Estates, 61 of them were built by Habitat for Humanity, according to Gage Yeager, executive director of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth. He said most of those homes were damaged, including at least a dozen that were destroyed.
"I tell you, it has just broken my heart," said Habitat for Humanity volunteer Elsie Tallant, who helped serve lunch every weekend to those building the homes in a Granbury neighborhood and those poised to become homeowners.
"We were going to dedicate a house this weekend, and her home was destroyed," she said.
The homes, built primarily for low-income people, were insured and can be rebuilt, said Habitat for Humanity volunteer Bill Jackson.
Raul Rodriguez said he will rebuild. Aside from shattered windows, lost roof shingles and a garage that caved in on his car, Rodriguez feels fortunate.
"My neighbors to the right, they lost everything," he said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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