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Jarrell, Texas, continues to heal after ’97 tornado that claimed 27

JARRELL, Texas (BP)–The loss of 27 people in the killer tornado which struck this small village of 400 May 28, 1997, is still a sensitive subject more than a year later.
There have been community events which have helped the healing process, such as the placement of a memorial to the victims and the planting of a “living memorial” of trees, but the memory of the stormy afternoon and the Force Five tornado is still painful.
Max Johnson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jarrell, a hamlet 40 miles north of Austin, said a film about the tornado made by the British Broadcasting Company was shown in the community on Memorial Day this year.
“We showed it because some of our members are in the film. It told of the storm and the devastation, and it almost got too touchy. I thought about pulling the plug (on the showing), but we held on until it was over,” he said.
“Wounds are healed on the outside,” he said. “The community has rebuilt, and the physical changes are pretty dramatic. Many of the houses out there (the Double Creek Estates which were wiped out by the storm) have been rebuilt.
“If you took somebody out to show them the area now, they would have a hard time understanding how bad the devastation really was,” he said.
Johnson said a granite memorial to the victims of the storm has been placed down by the firehouse, and 27 trees — elm, ash, redbud — were planted around the perimeter of the church as a living memorial to the people who died.
But while the wounds appear healed on the outside, Johnson said, “there is still a quickness on the inside. There are areas that are left festering and unhealed on the inside. There are sore spots inside which need healing, which need more time.”
The veteran pastor said some of the people who live in and around Jarrell “don’t share their feelings very well, and for them, much of the loss has been glossed over. Inside, they have held onto many of the bad feelings.
“Those willing to share (their feelings) and vent have gotten along a lot better.”
Several factors have hindered healing in a place like Jarrell which suffered such a massive natural disaster.
One is that there is no one to blame. In Oklahoma City, there were Nichols and McVeigh. In Greenville, Texas, it was the people who set two African American churches on fire. In Jasper, Texas, it was the white supremacists who were arrested for dragging a black man to his death behind their truck.
But, in Jarrell, there is no one to blame.
Some folks call a Force Five tornado — the strongest which have ever been recorded — “God’s Finger.” Others refer to such an event as an “act of God.”
Johnson does not like such descriptions, and particularly dislikes calling the Jarrell tornado “God’s Finger.”
“I would rather use the other name I have heard for such devastating storms. That is to call it the Devil’s Tail. It is not God’s Finger. In something like this — a natural disaster — many people have a tendency to either blame or credit God with it,” he said.
“If a villain goes into someone’s home and kills their children, there is someone to blame, but in this case there is no one. I keep struggling with the theology which says God is responsible … to blame for this.
“I have found in Scripture evidence that God punished some places, but he usually sent prophets in to warn the residents before the punishment came. I do not want to assume God did it (cause the storm), or that it was his will that those people died.”
Johnson said that the storm is a result of natural laws which God set up. “If I jump off a building, I will fall to the ground, unless something very unusual happens. If certain sequences of (weather) events occur, then you have a storm.”
Another reason is connected somewhat to the first. In such events as a natural disaster, people often begin to second guess themselves as to whether they could have done more to help. Then, that spirit radiates out and they question the actions of others.
Johnson said while there is a “closeness” among the residents, particularly the church members, there also is an estrangement in the community. One veteran observer said small towns are very good at many things, but old resentments and bitternesses tend to die hard.
Johnson said that Jarrell “probably won’t get over the storm” for a long, long time. “Maybe not even in my lifetime.”
He said the fears generated by the 1989 and 1997 storms return “every time a thunderstorm blows up.”
“Every time we have stormy weather it takes us back to THE storm,” he said.
Following the 1989 storm, which caused massive property damage but no loss of life, “you didn’t hear about people putting in storm cellars. But now (after the 1997 storm) you see a lot of people putting them in.”
He said there probably will be a park — with a community storm cellar — built where the home of Larry Igo once stood in the Double Creek Estates. Igo, his wife, daughter and twin sons were killed in the storm. The Igos were key members of the church in Jarrell.
Johnson said he worries about the children whose lives will be forever marked by the events of May 28.
“My children are still bothered by the 1989 storm,” he said. “A lot of children in this town lost companions in the 1997 storm. When storm clouds come up, it affects a lot of people.
“So long as the sun is shining, everything is OK. But when the weather threatens, it changes dramatically,” he said.

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  • Dan Martin