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In tornado’s aftermath, Perryton residents refuse to see their town wiped from the map

By Jayme Lozano Carver, The Texas Tribune

In tornado’s aftermath, Perryton residents refuse to see their town wiped from the map” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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PERRYTON — Margarita Escobar was cooking dinner when she looked out her kitchen window and froze. She watched a massive tornado cross the highway and curve toward the neighborhood where she’s lived for more than 20 years.

“We have a basement, but we couldn’t go to it because my dad is in a wheelchair,” Escobar said, crying as she recalled last week’s disaster. “I ran to get him, put him in the wheelchair and ran to the bathroom.”

In just 11 minutes, the tornado tore through homes, businesses and churches. Three people, including an 11-year-old boy, died and more than 100 were injured.

Memories, security and sanctuaries were ripped away from the town’s nearly 8,900 residents. But to them, Perryton is more than a freckle on the map in the farthest reaches of the Texas Panhandle. Its roots run too deep to be torn away.

Before the tornado, Perryton was known, if at all, as the “wheatheart” of the nation for its once-thriving wheat crop and as the home of beloved children’s book character Hank the Cowdog. Thrust into the national spotlight as it seeks to recover, residents don’t want to be known for what happened a week ago. They are determined to rebuild and make Perryton home again.

“It’s going to be a long-term recovery, going on for months and probably years,” said Dacey Underwood, a Perryton resident who was helping with the Red Cross relief station at Perryton High School. “But I think we’ll be OK. We’re going to get through it together.”

A graphic created by the National Weather Service traces the path of the tornado that devastated the northern Panhandle town of Perryton on June 15, 2023.
A graphic created by the National Weather Service traces the path of the tornado that devastated the northern Panhandle town of Perryton on June 15, 2023. Credit: National Weather Service

Remnants from the disaster still littered the town at the start of this week. Walls of sheet metal were crumpled and wrapped around telephone poles, an entire mobile home park was leveled, and a downtown communications tower was folded in half. The EF3 tornado had winds as fast as 140 miles per hour and was estimated to be a half-mile wide by the National Weather Service. It touched down with no warning for many; City Manager David Landis said the entire town lost power the moment city officials went to activate the siren system that would have alerted residents.

In the days since, the community has come together digging through rubble, picking up debris and donating meals. And while supplies and materials have been flowing in from surrounding communities, residents say what they need to recover now are funds and helping hands.

“All our community services and churches are getting really full from donations. We need more people here to pick this stuff up,” said Triston Rawlins, a Perryton resident who was picking up planks of wood and rooftop tiles with a group of men Sunday afternoon. “Sooner or later, we’re going to need a lot of money for these businesses and homes.”

For the people who’ve lived in the area their whole lives, there has been a sense of pride watching the community come together. Underwood was raised in Amarillo. Her husband, Cole, grew up in Perryton and is now the school’s athletic director. Both have been helping with recovery efforts, and Underwood has seen donations come in from nearby Spearman and Pampa.

Still, Underwood said it’s going to take a long time to rebuild.

“We’re not going to sweep the street and be back together tomorrow,” said Underwood, who is also director of communications for Perryton ISD. “Churches have been condemned, buildings will have to be torn down, homes will have to be rebuilt, engineers have already said they need to tear down the first block of Main Street.”

The sidewalk outside of Escobar’s home is mostly impassable — covered in mud and water, with flattened shrubs and the occasional chunk of wood acting as stepping stones. Her husband and other family members are working to clean up the damage in the front and back yards.

Even without electricity and a phone signal, Escobar keeps a smile on her face and waves off concerns about a wasp flying nearby. Her daughter, Suleyma Rosales, is also trying to look on the bright side — she’s grateful her family is still alive, and she appreciates the people who have come through offering food or help. But she still felt loss from the tornado.

“I worked in one of the buildings on Main Street,” explained Rosales, a hairstylist. “It got hit too, so I’m not going to be working for a while. But there are other people who lost everything.”

Since the town is without gas, Rosales’ family has been taking cold showers at her home, but she says they have everything else they need. She’s more focused now on getting her parents’ home repaired. She has doubts, though, if the town will be able to completely heal.

“We will probably never be back to normal, honestly,” Rosales said.

Local officials say they are overwhelmed by material donations, and financial donations are needed most. Donations are being accepted at any FirstBank Southwest location, the Perryton National Bank and the Interstate Bank in Perryton. Those who donate must state that the money is for survivors of the Perryton tornado.

As a way to determine eligibility for federal disaster relief and to get more resources to Perryton faster, the Texas Division of Emergency Management is asking those impacted by the tornado to self-report their property damage online.

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