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Houston tornado rips through Pasadena and Deer Park, flipping trucks and ripping open a nursing home

Houston Chronicle 1/25/2023 Sam González Kelly, John Wayne Ferguson, Sarah Smith, Amanda Drane, Clare Fonstein, Elizabeth Conley, Karen Warren, Mark Mulligan

It didn’t matter that the wind had ripped out the fence at his Deer Park house. It didn’t matter that he had to run nearly a mile from his home, past downed power lines and ravaged office buildings and chunks of concrete that had landed barely 50 feet from the parking lot of the Cream of the Crop Learning Center. It didn’t matter what the rest of the world looked like. All that mattered to Joseph Sion was that his two children were safe.

When he arrived at the daycare, Sion clutched his 1-year-old son to his chest. He felt like he could barely breathe.

His 6-year-old daughter wasn't there. He started to cry.

Severe, record-breaking weather roared through the Houston area Tuesday afternoon, ripping down buildings, upending vehicles, trapping drivers in flooded streets and tearing the siding from homes and businesses after a tornado touched down southeast of the city. It was unclear exactly how many injuries the tornado and storms caused.

Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton said that up to 30 homes sustained major damage from the tornado, but that there had been no reports of fatalities from the storm.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Tuesday afternoon that three people were transported to hospitals with non-life threatening conditions. The rare tornado damaged a Pasadena animal shelter (injuring two dogs and one person) and a Deer Park nursing home (63 residents were rescued, and one was injured), and caused operational issues at chemical facilities in the southeastern refining corridor.

THE DAY THE TORNADO STRUCK: Photos show path of destruction across eastern Harris County

While the storms hit hardest in Deer Park and Pasadena, they caused significant damage in some parts of Houston. A wastewater facility on Kingspoint Road was banged up but was still functioning. The roof of an apartment complex in the 11100 block of Beamer was blown off by the strong winds. Just before 5 p.m., the city had received 22 calls about debris and another 23 calls about flooded roads.

"I've worked here for 25 years, and this is probably the worst damage that I've seen," said Pasadena Police Chief Jeff Bruegger. "It's just catastrophic."

Sion, 29, in nearby Deer Park, was one of several panicked parents who had sprinted to Cream of the Crop Learning Center in the hours after the tornado. He only exhaled when he learned his older child was safely en route to the location on a bus.

“I couldn’t breathe the whole time,” he said. “I just wanted them to be OK.”

A 'tornado emergency'

Forecasters knew the tornadoes were possible several days in advance. Tim Cady, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in League City, said the tornadoes all formed from a single inline of storms that forecasters had their eye on hours before the cyclone formed.

Tuesday marked the first time a “tornado emergency” had ever been declared in southeast Texas. A tornado emergency, a term coined in 2016, is a rare pronouncement by the weather service that there is a severe threat to human life or imminent catastrophic damage.

One local expert noted the difference it made for the region to have that designation and to use it.

“I think overall the warnings from the Weather Service were fantastic,” said Matt Lanza, managing editor of Space City Weather. “I’m sure they helped get people to safety."

A tornado watch was first issued at 10:50 a.m., when parameters were conducive for tornadoes south of I-10 and close to the coast. The line of storms that eventually caused the tornadoes formed southwest of the 610 Loop. 

A tornado warning was issued at 2:10 p.m., based on a report of a tornado near Pearland. The first report of a large tornado near the Beltway was called in at 2:29 p.m.

One of the telltale signs that a tornado had formed were that images of debris balls showed up on radar. Debris balls are created when radar detect things like branches, housing material or vehicles in the air.

“When you get that on the radar, it’s usually a very clear indication that there’s a tornado on the ground,” said Cady. “It’s something that definitely makes you very concerned.”

The weather service will send experts out into the field on Wednesday to assess damage and estimate how strong the storm was. Cady said the weather service would also investigate reports of other tornadoes near Brazos Bend State Park and in Chambers County.

Refinery upsets

Major refineries and chemical facilities outside Houston reported operational upsets after a tornado was reported in the area Tuesday afternoon. 

The severe string of storms knocked out power to parts of the refining corridor southeast of the city and forced at least one chemical facility, Braskem’s complex in La Porte, to do a controlled shut-down, the company told the community in an online message board.

The extent of the damage was still coming to light after 4 p.m. Tuesday as energy companies began surveying the damage.

Shell Chemicals in Deer Park said in a statement that the storm knocked out its onsite steam capabilities, resulting in flaring.

“There is no threat to the community, nor are there any indications a nearby tornado touched down within the Chemicals facility,” the company said on Twitter.

Exxon Mobil said it was beginning to inspect its Baytown facilities for potential damage, but that its operations were stable.

“At this time we have no reports of any injuries to Exxon Mobil employees or contractors,” the company said. “We are conducting a preliminary assessment to determine if there is impact to our facilities.”

The Deer Park refinery owned by Pemex said it was “experiencing operational upsets” Tuesday that resulted in flaring. LyondellBasell’s facility in La Porte and Dow Chemical’s facility in Deer Park were also reporting incidents.

INEOS BMC said it was sheltering in place shortly before 3 p.m. after the tornado warning was issued.

Debnil Chowdhury, S&P Global Commodity Insights’ head of fuel and refining in the Americas, said he and his colleagues were monitoring the situation for potential impacts to refineries and the larger fuel markets, but that power outages in the area may be an early sign of operational interruptions on the horizon for refineries in Deer Park and Baytown.

“We do not have any information on if the refineries were hit by the tornado at this time,” Chowdhury said in a statement. “CenterPoint Energy is indicating that there are power outages in the vicinity of both refineries. Historically, refineries faced with power grid reliability issues may shut down temporarily as a precautionary safety measure.”

If refineries sustained damage and stay offline, he said, the outages could push up fuel prices.

The grace of God

As the skies cleared, residents peered out from their homes, ducking under sagging power lines to survey the damage. An 18-wheeler with a green cab sprawled across the highway, flipped upside down. Speed limit signs and telephone poles listed into the streets. Pink insulation peeked through the ripped-out side of a red-brick house in Pasadena. Cars were crushed against trees. Billboards rested 50 feet below where they’d been hung. A UPS truck lay on its side near a Home Depot.

Dana White, 56, has gotten used to hurricanes in the lifetime he'd spent in Deer Park, but nothing could have prepared him for the carnage that he saw as he walked down his street surveying the damage to his neighbors' houses. White was in his garage working on his car when he got the first alert to his phone. He initially brushed it aside, but when a second alert came through minutes later, he rushed indoors. Within 30 seconds, the storm had descended upon him.

One apartment on Dixie Drive had a wall completely torn away, laying bare the life of a 72-year-old woman living in one of the upstairs units: upholstered lounge chairs, blankets and towels piled several feet high. Neighbors shuffled up and down the stairs, helping carry out her medications and family photos.  

Billie Liparito and her husband had been inside their RV parked near the Moose Lodge when the rains and winds began to bear down. Their trailer rocked back and forth. The windows started to buckle and crack. They crawled to the bedroom. There was only one window in the bedroom. They figured it would be the safest place. 

The entire thing was over in what was probably five minutes. It felt like forever.

When they opened the door, they saw the damage. The winds had cut a swath of destruction all around their spot just inside the Beltway. It had hit a construction site with a cluster of buildings, collapsing the steel walls of a CrossFit gym. Other RVs by theirs, that had been parked near the Moose Lodge lay on their sides. One had flipped into a detention pond behind the parking lot and lay poking out of the water.

She’s still not sure what made them stay upright. Maybe, she thinks, it was the grace of God.

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