Storms swept across Longview and East Texas on Wednesday afternoon, toppling trees onto homes and blocking numerous roads, disrupting schools and city and county operations and keeping tens of thousands without power into the night.
High winds knocked the steeple off Oakland Heights Baptist Church on Judson Road. It was among the most visible signs of damage in Central Longview and throughout the city.
Oakland Heights Senior Pastor Michael Cook said church staff was scattered at the time the storm came through because it was near lunch time.
He said when the storm hit, he was first alerted about the damage by some of the people at the church’s Child Development Center.
“We were told there was a loud crash — like a train,” Cook said. “We started investigating.”
Because the church’s steeple landed on and tore a hole in the building’s roof, Cook said, water began pouring in from the heavy rains.
Cook said at about 6 p.m. that the main sanctuary had about a quarter of an inch of water in it, and the balcony had about a half inch.
“There’s no way at this point for us to stop the water from coming into the building,” Cook said.
Longview police spokeswoman Kristie Brian said the storm damage was widespread, but no injuries were reported.
“We had to use our resources efficiently,” she said.
East Texans hunkered down in homes, businesses or whatever structure they were in when the storm hit.
At about 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, Kimberly Hollan reported she was in Dillard’s at the Longview Mall when she and other customers were told to get into dressing rooms.
She said employees were with them, and there were about 20 people in the dressing rooms as the sirens sounded inside the store.
Kevin Minshew stopped for a lunch break and to see his wife at their home on Dartmouth Street. The next thing he knew, they were in the bathroom with their dog seeking shelter.
“The pine trees in the back lot were swaying like crazy,” he said. “I went to get the dog, and when I did ,the neighbor’s tree fell across the road and knocked out power lines. The same neighbor had another tree fall across the road, split and on their house.”
The system that swept across East Texas and into Louisiana was a classic squall line.
“It’s an upper level disturbance that rolled across the region, and at the surface we had a cold front,” National Weather Service Meteorologist Marty Mayeaux said from Shreveport as the line was just clearing that city shortly before 7 p.m. “They came together to create a line of thunderstorms. We have a few possible tornadoes that we can fairly likely confirm, but we haven’t confirmed yet.”
Multiple school districts delayed evening bus routes Wednesday until the threat of high winds or possible tornadoes had subsided.
At least a half-dozen Longview ISD campuses lost power Wednesday, district spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross said. She added that the campus with the worst damage was J.L Everhart Elementary School, where at least one power line was down.
AEP Southwestern Electric Power Co. reported that as many as 44,000 customers across Gregg County lost power at some point Wednesday, and more than 25,000 customers in the county were still in the dark at about 11 p.m. Wednesday. SWEPCO spokeswoman Karen Wissing advised people to stay away from downed power lines.
LeTourneau University and Kilgore College postponed afternoon finals for the rest of the day, and many public offices, including those for the city of Longview and Gregg County, were in the dark, officials said.
Longview motorists were asked to avoid Fourth Street, Judson Road, McCann Road, H.G. Mosley Parkway, Fairmont Street and others for at least several hours to allow emergency personnel to respond to debris and damage.
Power outages also affected Longview hospitals.
Parts of Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center — Longview were on emergency power Wednesday afternoon, and there was no estimated time for when full power would be restored, spokesman William Knous said. He added that the power disruptions were “not affecting patient care, and we are not on divert.”
Patients at Longview Regional Medical Center also continued to receive care throughout the storms, CEO Casey Robertson said in a statement.
“The hospital team regularly drills to prepare for unexpected events such as severe weather. Our back-up generators ensure power is sustained and patients have been moved away from windows to keep them safe,” Robertson said.
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, Minshew said the power company still had not arrived, but with this widespread damage, he didn’t expect to have power before late Wednesday.
“We’ve never experienced anything quite that severe since we’ve been here, and we’ve been here about 10 or 12 years,” he said. “To be honest, we’re lucky the damage wasn’t worse.”
Minshew said he was concerned that he never heard the city’s warning sirens.
The city of Longview operates 20 emergency warning sirens across the community that are designed to be heard outside, but they are sounded whenever Gregg County is placed under a tornado warning. The National Weather Service didn’t issue a tornado warning in Gregg County nor had it reported a confirmed tornado in the county Wednesday.
An automated CodeRED weather alert was issued for a severe thunderstorm warning at about 2 p.m., according to the city.
Weather service teams will be in Texas today examining the wake of the storm to confirm whether tornadoes were produced and if any touched down, he said. A public radio break-in around 3 p.m. warned of a possible tornado in the Harleton area moving north.
The heaviest rains fell along a line from Mount Pleasant/Pittsburg southwest to Mineola.
“They saw 5 to 6 inches of rain,” he said. “But Longview got around 1 to 2 inches.”
Mayeaux said East Texas took seemed to have escaped the brunt of the storm.
“Most of that damage we had is east of the state line,” he said. “(But) nothing in Longview.”
Standing outside Oakland Heights on Wednesday with more rain expected in just a couple of hours, Cook remained positive.
“Fortunately, these are just things,” he said, while talking about community members who had retrieved chainsaws to help friends and neighbors whose homes had been damaged.
“Maybe this is bringing out some great things in the Longview community that really reminds me that we live in a great city.”