WAXAHACHIE — With sirens blaring and hearts pumping in fear, residents of Canton took cover as a dangerous tornado ripped through their town, leaving behind a tragic disaster.
That was also when the kindness of surrounding communities began to show.
“In today’s world, news travels very fast with those types of events and everyone in this area was watching intently to see who was going to be affected,” recalled Ryan Hube, people manager of Gerdau, a steel manufacturing company based in Midlothian.
“Those events are not strange to this part of the world, that’s for sure. When we heard about the damage, we knew we had the ability to help out, and we decided to act as quickly as we could,” he added about the reaction after the disaster that blew through on April 29.
“After watching the news of these people, whose houses are gone, and there’s nothing left, it’s just nothing,” expressed Melissa Baker, owner of Waxahachie’s Old Town Village Antiques and Uniques. “So as Old Town Village, we decided to get together and do our part and collect money.”
After seeing the damage, the Ellis County community immediately acted and rushed to the aid of those in Van Zandt County.
“It’s paramount to help out in times like this. This part of North Texas, and just outside of the Metroplex is scattered with these small communities that need to rely on each other at various times when this happens,” Hube expressed.
Although neither Ellis County businesses knew of each other’s presence, the Texan spirit lived on in a theme of neighborly love, inspiring them both to help in different ways.
The first to respond on Sunday, April 30, was Gerdau with a team of volunteers to provide vital equipment for the Canton search-and-rescue crews.
“Being a part of safety we have our own in-house emergency response team,” explained Ron Herring, safety manager at Gerdau in Midlothian. “We train for catastrophic events. So when we heard of the damage that has occurred in Canton and the county’s surrounding, we knew that as soon as daylight broke there would be search and rescue teams heading out to see how much damage there was.”
Due to the tornados timing in the late afternoon, nightfall made the search and rescue difficult, delaying rescue missions that required different safety materials.
“If you don’t have the right safety gear, you can actually injure a rescuer, and that’s not your intent, so all they could do is respond to calls for help,” Herring articulated. “But once daylight hits, we knew that they were going to gear up and head out and start doing the search and rescue in homes that were damaged.”
Packing two pickup trucks with donated items that included cut-resistant gloves, "Sqwincher" sports drinks, water, cleaning supplies, coffee and filters, plastic tarps, reflective vests, toilet paper and more, the Gerdau team set course to Canton.
“Firefighters wear gloves to keep them from heat but not necessarily from sharp objects. When the tornados hit there was a lot of metal, protruding nails, and broken boards that could come through their glove and cause injury, so we gathered about 300 pairs of cut-resistant gloves,” Herring listed. “We drove to Canton, went to the Police Department, spoke to dispatch to find out where the basic command was, and it was at the high school. That’s where all the non-critical patients went for triage.
“When we got there, we spoke directly to the fire chief who thanked us for the donation, and we were escorted to the fire department in town which was barricaded off. So we unloaded it in one of their firebases where they had their teams set up, and one of the first things they grabbed were those cut-resistant gloves, and put them on the engines on their assignments to the neighborhoods."
Surrounding communities were also found on the scene, donating food, clothes, and other supplies to help victims of the storm.
“While we were there, there was actually a country western band that came off tour, and they were heading back to Lubbock,” Herring remembered. “When we were unloading, they were giving them all the water they had on their bus, and it must’ve been 30 cases they were donating. People were coming up there with clothing and general donations were coming in at that point.”
As the Gerdau transitioned out of town, they left the items in good hands, as Old Town Village Antiques and Uniques soon took over the initiative.
“I so wanted to go down there and help, whether that meant pull limbs or cut trees, or help clear people's yards or do whatever I could. But I’m 67 years old and I’m not physically able to do that, so I thought, ‘One thing I can do is raise money.’ So I did that,” Baker remembered the moment she got the idea to raise funds on Friday, May 5.
Hitting close to home, Baker’s passion stemmed from hearing the horror of her family being threatened by the tornado.
“I have family that lives in Canton, and they happened to be in Grand Saline when the tornados went through,” Baker began. “I have four grandchildren there, and every child was with another friend in Canton. So we heard the tornado had hit, but there was no cell service, so we could never reach to find out if everybody was okay – we didn’t know.”
After two days of no communication with her family, Baker later found a Facebook post by the mayor of Canton that warned outsiders not to travel into town, due to the severe damage.
“I didn’t drive because I didn’t want to make the drive and not be able to get there,” Baker explained her dilemma. “It took my son four hours to drive 20 miles from Grand Saline to Canton because of the trees, cars, debris, and everything from the roads was blocked.
“They didn’t know if their kids were okay or not. It turned out that they were able to get all the kids except one, and that was my granddaughter. She happened to be with some friends in an area that got hit hard, and search and rescue got them, but it took them nine hours to get to them."
In a circle of kindness, from Gerdau’s donations and the skilled search and rescue teams, Baker’s granddaughter was pulled from an impacted closet nine hours later with a clean bill of health.
“We were very lucky,” Baker admitted. “My family is fine, but they did get damage. A tree went through their door and roof, their car is flipped around, and a trailer from somewhere landed in their yard, but they’re okay.”
Inspired to come alongside other communities and continue the help, Baker set up a donation jar at her store to raise funds for the Canton community.
“We have a little sign and a jar that people can put their money or checks in and it’s going directly to 'Van Zandt County Tornado Relief Fund 2017,'” Baker explained the glass jar stuffed with cash.
“The First State Bank of Ben Wheeler in Canton, set up an account for people to donate money and it’ll go directly to the people in need. It doesn’t go through an organization where it pays salaries and bills — it goes directly to the people in need” she affirmed. “Hopefully, the money that our drive produces will help some families with either clothing or food because they have nothing.”
Through an outpouring of love from one community to another, the continued support is sowing into Ellis County's character for many years to come.
“It’s something that we do,” Herring confirmed the small-town quality. “It’s very sensitive for Gerdau to help our communities in need.”
“Unfortunately these events are not necessarily strangers to us, so it’s very important to come together in these various communities and help each other out,” Hube acknowledged. “Fortunately we haven’t had recent events happening here, but we certainly hope that other surrounding communities would help us out the same as we’ve tried to help them in the past.
“We try to do right by the community that supported us and allows us to do business. It’s the support of these communities that keeps us running every day, and we try to do the same,” he added.
“There has been a tremendous outpour from all over. I hope this passion spreads more here in Waxahachie. I’m doing my part, and I hope others will help as well,” Baker finished with encouragement.
To donate toward the "Van Zandt County Tornado Relief Fund 2017," visit Old Town Village Antiques and Uniques, located at 307 South Rogers Street, or call (972) 938-9515. To give through PayPal, write donations to email@example.com or mail checks to First State Bank Ben Wheeler’s P.O. BOX 428 Canton, Texas 75103.
Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer