AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Ten seconds. That’s about how long Lindsey Topolski says she felt the power of Monday night’s tornado.
“It was the noise that was the scariest thing,” Topolski said, describing it as sounding like a freight train.
“You could just feel the house just crackling and caving in metal. It was like metal bending,” she said.
Now, her home in Williamson County has huge holes in the roof. The area that was once her garage is a mangled mess. But she survived the storm’s fury.
“I thought I was gonna go. I thought it was gonna take me with it,” Topolski said, describing those tense ten seconds.
“Not one of us even has a scratch on us,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
In her neighborhood, it’s a group effort toward recovery. Friends and neighbors are stepping up to help. Volunteers are bringing supplies and offering assistance. It’s a scene playing out in other parts of the state also hit by Monday’s tornadoes.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Tuesday for both Williamson and Bastrop counties following a series of tornadoes Monday. They’re two of a 16-county group who received the designation while Abbott was in Jacksboro.
Abbott said the declaration will “provide the capability of waiving certain rules or regulations or accelerating certain timetables to assist local communities.”
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell told KXAN News Today on Tuesday morning that Abbott “called me within five minutes” after KXAN aired a tornado touching down in Round Rock and assured him the state would step in and help.
Abbott signed the declaration in Jack County on Tuesday afternoon. Jacksboro suffered severe damage in the area, including an elementary school and several houses with their roofs ripped off.
“This disaster declaration will help Jack County but also help counties across the entire state of Texas more rapidly respond to and recover from this horrific disaster that struck the community,” Abbott said. “It is horrific, but it is being handled so incredibly professionally by the leaders of this community.”
Approximately 350 to 400 homes were damaged by Monday night’s tornado in Round Rock, according to the city.
That includes Sheila Beakley’s home, with major roof damage. She’s taking things step by step.
“There’s gonna be a lot of roof work that needs to be done. Compared to everybody else, it’s more so over the garage. So we’re really lucky,” Beakley said.
The two homes next to hers lost their roofs completely.
“They’re tarping it, hopefully they’ll replace it here pretty soon,” Cheyenne Martin said.
Tyler Esquivel with Paul Davis Restoration said roofs are usually the quickest fix.
“Roof is pretty quick. They’ll come out here and within the week, and they’re gonna be done with that,” Esquivel said.
Construction supply shortages have been causing delays and headaches across the country for builders for months.
“Lumber of course is going to be your number one due to framing and all the board ups. However, there’s other shortages like aluminum, like these pieces of siding, flashing and stuff like that,” he explained.
But Esquivel doesn’t expect these shortages to get in the way of patching up roofs in a timely manner.
“There’s a lot of homes, but there’s a lot of places that also sell the material,” Esquivel said. Contractors can pull that from other parts of the state.
Internal and structural damage could take longer than usual, though.
“We’ve got a huge hole in the side of the house, huge hole going into the garage. And then in the center, we have a huge hole as well,” Martin said.
“Water mitigation, restoration and reconstruction — that’s going to take a little bit longer. That’s where your delays will come in for some of the lumber shortages and the materials,” Esquivel explained.
He said he thinks the bigger issue with material shortages, paired with inflation, will be cost.
“I’ve actually seen that actually be a problem. In the case of someone’s coverage, where two years ago this would be fully covered, but now it’s going over their coverage just due to material,” Esquivel explained.
In the meantime, Beakley is trying to stay positive, even with her neighbor’s trailer in pieces on her lawn.
“This morning, we were just laughing, and I just wrote the sign, you know, ‘trailer for sale, needs work,'” Beakley joked.
Insurance claims surge after Texas tornado outbreak
After the tornadoes come the insurance claims.
On Wednesday, USAA told KXAN it is currently working more than 1,000 claims tied to Monday’s severe weather in Central Texas.
On the outskirts of Georgetown, John Miles said he’s already spoken to an adjuster, adding that, so far, the process has been smooth for him.
“[The adjuster] will be out later this week to look at everything.”
During the 2021 winter freeze, the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI), the state’s regulator, suspended certain laws to speed up the processing of claims.
KXAN asked the TDI if it may need to that again after the tornadoes.
“It’s not quite as widespread as the freeze was as far as different geographic areas,” said Ben Gonzalez with the TDI.
Gonzalez said he believes insurers will have the capacity to “respond appropriately” to the tornado outbreak.
Department data shows more than 500,000 claims were tied to the winter storm, overall. That many claims are not anticipated from Monday’s event.
KXAN has reached out to the Insurance Council of Texas to find out how many tornado-related claims have been filed, so far, and how many could be anticipated.
When it comes to staffing, USAA said unlike other industries, the insurance business has been somewhat insulated from worker shortages because many insurance jobs — like adjusters — are specialized, often lifelong careers.
“We have not seen that impact necessarily,” Rebekah Nelson told KXAN.
Nelson added that it’s important for policyholders be wary of hiring door-to-door contractors who promise to deal with the insurance companies for them.
“If a contractor is asking you for a large sum of money up front or giving you an estimate that just seems too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.
Property owner Robert Rosenbusch, currently dealing with a porch that collapsed on his daughter’s car, said he’s “been down that road before” when it comes to traveling contractors.
“We ran into some problems in the past where the work wasn’t done right,” he said. “You can’t ever get them to come back and finish things up.”
You can find tips on how to file a claim and avoid scams and fraud on the Texas Department of Insurance website.
How the highway overpass hit by the tornado quickly cleared a safety inspection
One unforgettable moment from Monday’s tornado outbreak was when a tornado, captured live on camera, twisted past a highway flyover in Round Rock. In the footage you can see
Footage of the incident shows dozens of cars slowing down on the road and a high-mast light pole located on the flyover bent in half by strong winds.
A spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation told KXAN it closed the flyover briefly Monday night, so its crews could safely remove the damaged pole. She said bridge engineers with the agency evaluated the structural integrity of the flyover.
Another inspection occurred on Tuesday morning after the sun came up, according to the spokesperson.
The spokesperson said TxDOT has inspected state bridges and flyovers after various types of weather events and “has teams available for evaluation immediately after such events occur.”
The spokesperson said this bridge — and all bridges in the Texas highway system — are supposed to be evaluated every two years. During the routine inspections, teams typically first assess the condition of the bridge visually. More in-depth evaluations and testing are performed, if needed.
This stretch of road was built in 2006, according to TxDOT.
‘Rainy Day Fund’ unlikely to be tapped to help tornado victims
When Monday’s tornado tore through Elgin, it ripped apart Leonard Wilson’s house.
“This is my home, it’s gone,” Wilson said in disbelief. “It’s gone.”
Wilson — nearly 70 years old, and living with a disability — truly can’t believe he’s alive.
“Once it [the tornado] hit, I was in the hallway and it blew the bedroom window out, and that’s when it knocked me down in the hallway,” Wilson said. “My bedroom door flew off…and covered me before the ceiling fell down. I was just praying.”
His home has been in his family for generations, originally his mother’s in the 60s. It now stands frail, surrounded by rubble, ruined photo albums, and uprooted trees.
Wilson said he doesn’t have insurance.
“I can’t afford to do this myself, I’m displaced right now,” he said. “American Red Cross came through yesterday to give me somewhere to stay for a couple of nights.”
Governor Greg Abbott made his way to Elgin on Wednesday, conducting another briefing on how the state is helping people after the tornado outbreak.
“There’s all of these volunteer organizations that come together, and they can rebuild homes in a matter of days,” Abbott said. “And we will be tapping into those volunteer organizations, get them here in Elgin and help rebuild homes here, just like they did along the coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.”
Most of the help right now is coming from local officials in each part of the state, and other volunteer organizations—according to Abbott. And he says the state is waiting to see whether the total cost of damages will be high enough for FEMA to step in, offering up federal dollars.
“One thing that we need from people across the entire Bastrop county area across all of Elgin is to provide information about any damages that you and your property have sustained,” said Abbott.
We asked whether the state would tap into the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund. At the end of last year, it was at more than $11 billion.
“The truth of the matter is, there is no point in the legislature that puts money into any of our budgets in order to be able to do that,” Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said. “One of the reasons I think they don’t is because the volunteer and faith-based organizations respond so quickly, and are able to get out there and help those that are in need.”
While mourning all that’s been lost, Wilson knows rebuilding will take time.
“I was born and raised here,” Wilson said.
Abbott said his emergency declaration for 16 counties has also freed up more resources and funds to help with cleaning up things like debris, and other mess left behind after the storm.
Why climate change could affect the type of severe weather seen in Texas
Another week, another round of historic weather in Texas. From five tornadoes touching down in the Austin-metro area, to tens of thousands of acres burned in another round of wildfires. In the last few years Texas has been plagued with several instances of once-in-a-lifetime weather.
So that begs the question: is climate change to blame?
“Climate change affects everything a little bit,” said Texas’ State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. According to Nielsen-Gammon, scientists look at changes over time to determine the impact climate is having on weather, but with tornadoes that isn’t possible.
“We don’t have good historical data for tornadoes in the sense of people didn’t go out and chase them until relatively recently,” Nielsen-Gammon said. Because of this, climatologists have been unable to determine if tornadoes are getting more intense or occurring more frequently.
“The shift in where these tornadoes are happening is actually more climate related,” said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University. He says that over the last 40 years, places like Texas have seen a decrease in tornado activity while areas in the southeastern United States have seen an increase.
Jana Houser, an associate professor of meteorology at Ohio University, says that this likely due to a drying out of the great plains. “In areas where you have increasing drought… those areas are going to be less likely to see the possibility for tornado outbreaks.”
This is because droughts mean less moisture near the ground. Moisture is needed to generate the supercell storms where tornadoes form.
“Wildfires get worse because you’ve got more rapid drying out of plant material,” said Nielsen-Gammon. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that as global temperatures continue to rise, droughts will become more common. Increased droughts will also lead to water scarcity in the United States, something Texas isn’t prepared for.
A report from 2021 found that temperatures rising just half a degree will significantly increase the chances for wildfires.
Preventing climate change is a global endeavor, but there are things we can do locally. “Collective benefits accrue from collective action. And it’s possible to set an example locally,” Nielsen-Gammon said.