8/4/1999 12:00 AM
The northeast Texas town of DeKalb, population 2,000, will never be the same. Everything changed on May 4, 1999, when a tornado tore through downtown DeKalb, injuring 17 and damaging or destroying about 130 homes, 40 businesses and several school buildings. One person was killed in nearby Titus County.
Tornado damages to DeKalb were estimated at $34.8 million, says Bob Martin, TMAC project manager with the Technology and Economic Development Division. Martin was a member of a team organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess the economic impact of the disaster.
The storm system that crossed Texas and Oklahoma spawned several tornadoes, which touched down in Anderson, Bowie, Gregg, Nacogdoches, Red River and Titus counties on May 4. Bowie County was declared a disaster area by Gov. George W. Bush.
A day earlier the same storm system had crossed Oklahoma, spawning twisters that were responsible for 38 deaths.
The tornado hit the central business district of DeKalb and nearby neighborhoods just after 3 p.m. The town’s volunteer fire chief spotted the tornado minutes before it struck and notified the police dispatcher to sound the warning sirens, giving residents a few minutes to seek shelter.
“The tornado went down the center of town and destroyed a large part of the business district,” Martin said. “ It’s amazing that no one was killed in DeKalb.”
School officials acted quickly to move students to interior hallways, and just after the final warning siren sounded, the high school and nearby elementary were hit.
“One of the miraculous occurrences was that no one was injured when the tornado struck the school,” Martin said. “School was normally dismissed at 3 p.m. and the tornado struck about 3:05. The assistant superintendent acted extremely responsibly and took action to protect those children when the tornado warning was issued. In some cases, he got them back off the buses and into the center of the school. The tornado did a tremendous amount of damage to the high school and destroyed a whole wing of classrooms.”
Besides Martin, the FEMA team included representatives from the ARK-TEX Council of Governments, the Economic Development Administration, Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“I think it was an excellent idea on FEMA’s part to involve The Texas A&M University System,” Martin said. “It was wonderful to see the cooperation of government agencies and how many people were there to help the citizens of DeKalb.”