Tornadoes Rip Through East Texas; 4 Dead In Van Zandt County

Apr 29, 2017

Updated Sunday April 30, 8:35 p.m.

Four people died in Van Zandt County, dozens of people were injured and widespread major property damage occurred as a result of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that roared through East Texas on Saturday night. Authorities in Van Zandt County said Sunday afternoon that two other people are still unaccounted for. A total of four tornadoes struck Van Zandt County, with one of those tornadoes also doing damage in Henderson County and another of the tornadoes traveling all the way through Rains County.

The largest tornado was a half-mile-wide when it passed along the east side of the Canton city limits. The tornado continued north and ran directly through Fruitvale before moving into Rains County. A map released by the National Weather Service late Saturday shows the path of the central storm cell in Rains County running just east of the Emory city limits. The storm cell weakened as it continued northward into Hopkins County.

The First Baptist Church of Fruitvale reported that some houses were destroyed and others damaged. The school across the street from the church was used as an emergency command center. Major damage was also reported in nearby Grand Saline.

Schools will be closed Monday in Canton and Fruitvale.

No identifying information has been released about the four people who died in the Canton area. The Canton Fire Department said that one person died when their vehicle was thrown from State Highway 64 near Canton. The Ben Wheeler Fire Department reported finding one person dead in a field near Canton, also in the vicinity of State Highway 64.

Rebecca Berkley, a spokeswoman for East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare Systems, says 56 people have been treated at three hospitals in the area. Six remain hospitalized Sunday morning and two of those are in critical condition.

Throughout the region, uprooted trees, destroyed buildings and overturned vehicles were left in the trail of the storms. A stretch of Interstate 20 was closed into Sunday. Thousands of people were left without electrical service as a result of the storms.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott surveyed the damage on Sunday.

"Wicked winds that pierced through here and are gone the next minute," he said. "We as Texans, especially the folks here in east Texas. We come together and respond to challenges like this. And help our neighbors."

Crews began searching for survivors Saturday night, but downed power lines, gas leaks, heavy rain and additional reports of tornadoes hampered their efforts. Door-to-door searches were being done Sunday.

The swath of damage ran from Van Zandt County's southern border almost to the northern edge, about 35 miles long, Canton's mayor said. At some points, it stretched as wide as 15 miles. Canton Mayor Lou Ann Everett asked volunteers not to come to the area yet. Gov. Abbott said that in the next 24 hours, authorities will continue to look for people in the rubble and clear debris, and volunteers can come later.

He said the best way to help out the community right now is through cash donations. Mayor Everett asks for people to hold onto other donations, like clothing, until the city and county figure out how to handle them.

Abbott says he expects to declare the area a disaster zone. His office sent a press release Sunday encouraging Texans to help those affected by the tornadoes.

The American Red Cross of North Texas set up two shelters for victims — one at Canton's First Methodist Church Life Center, the other at the Emory City Center in Emory.

For wounded animals, there is a vet station set up at Canton Junior High. And an animal shelter for lost pets is operating out of the Sears Hometown Store in Canton. Canton and Fruitvale schools will be closed Monday.

U-Haul of East Dallas is offering 30 days of free self-storage and U-Box container usage to residents of Canton and surrounding communities who were affected by the tornadoes. People seeking more information should contact one of the following stores:

U-Haul of Rose City, located at 411 N. Northwest Loop 323 in Tyler; (903) 939-2913.

U-Haul of Longview, located at 410 W. Marshall Ave.; (903) 757-3436.

The National Weather Service in Fort Worth posted initial paths for the storms Saturday night. The service said survey crews spent Sunday examining the damage to determine the strength and number of tornadoes.

On Sunday afternoon, they updated the storm paths. Two were given an initial rating of EF-0 and the other two, EF-3.

The first tornado struck near Grand Saline in Van Zandt County around 4:15 p.m. Saturday – it was on the ground briefly.

The second tornado hit Canton in Van Zandt County around 5:10 p.m. – it, too, was on the ground briefly.

The third tornado hit at 5:29 p.m. and stayed on the ground for about 40 minutes. It started around Eustace in Henderson County and traveled north into Van Zandt County, to the west of Canton.

The fourth tornado started near Eustace in Henderson County and traveled through Canton and the center of Van Zandt County. It then hit Rains County. This tornado was the longest – it struck at 5:41 p.m. and stopped around 7:30 p.m. It may have stayed on the ground for about 50 miles.

The National Weather Service says another tornado may have hit to the north of the other tornadoes -- in Hopkins County, south of the town of Cumby. Survey crews will examine the damage on Monday.