SE Houston parish begins path to restoration following catastrophic EF3 tornado
January 30, 2023
Damage is seen at St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in the Houston suburb of Deer Park after a tornado swept through the metro area Jan. 24, 2023. The storm also tore off roofs, downed utility poles and power lines, and flipped cars, trucks and even a train. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries. (OSV News photo/courtesy Father Reginald Samuels)
DEER PARK - A day after a severe storm spawned a tornado that terrorized the southeast and east sides of metropolitan Houston Jan. 24, the National Weather Service, city and county officials, and insurance adjusters descended upon St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park to assess the damage.
The National Weather Service upgraded its preliminary rating of the tornado's strength to an EF3, with an estimated maximum path length of 18 miles, a maximum width of .66 miles, and speeds between 136 and a maximum of 140 mph.
The rain-wrapped tornado directly hit the church complex, causing major damage to the religious education building, parish offices, rectory and Guyot Hall. The least amount of damage was to the main church, which had roof and window damage. Into the night Jan. 25, crews were working to restore power at the complex.
Father Reginald Samuels, pastor of the church, said they all received severe weather warnings on their phones.
"The alerts were becoming more and more ominous with two tornado warnings with tornadoes in the city of Deer Park," he said. "When we recognized that the weather was getting extreme outside, we all sheltered in place in the hallway of the offices, and then the tornado hit, and we prayed through it."
While no one who was in the building was injured, the employees' vehicles in the parking lots were damaged by all the debris, Father Samuels said.
"The outpouring of support from the community and the church members has been tremendous," Father Samuels said. "We have had many people from the community coming by the church complex to see how they can help clean up the property."
Deer Park was one of several suburbs of Houston hit with the major tornado. Baytown and Pasadena, as well as areas in southeast Houston showed catastrophic damage in the wake of the tornado's path. So far, no other churches in the area have reported damages.
For the moment, Mass times at St. Hyacinth will be planned on a day-by-day basis, Father Samuels said.
"I cannot make any decisions about the church complex until we have the power and water services restored, then we have to assess access to the church complex and main church considering the safety of everyone on campus," he said.
Father Samuels said the parish staff was currently working with officials from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to move forward on a plan for restoration.
"We want everyone to know that parish day-to-day and restoration updates can be found on our parish website, sthyacinth.org, along with the ability on the website to offer financial support during this time," he told the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The Jan. 24 tornado warning for the Houston metro area began in the Sienna Plantation planned community in Missouri City, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Houston, and continued around Pearland before radar began picking up debris at around 2:25 p.m., making meteorologists certain a tornado was hidden within a large amount of rain.
It was traced from southeast Houston into Pasadena, then Deer Park, and into the outskirts of Baytown east of Houston before the debris dissipated and the warning expired. The tornado had ransacked over 20 miles.
Damage to Deer Park and Pasadena was described as catastrophic as citizens pulled together to try and help each other. Roofs and walls were torn from businesses and homes, poles were bent toward the ground, trees were uprooted and thrown in different directions, air conditioning units were carried away to different streets, and scraps of metal were twisted around trees and power lines.
Jo Ann Zuñiga, media relations manager with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said she was at work when a neighbor called her to let her know her home in southeast Houston had sustained damage from a tornado. She quickly left the office to check on her house, and it took three times as long to get home due to the amount of debris on her way.
"The tornado touched down and knocked all the fence lines down like dominoes, and the thick posts busted through windows, created holes in the walls, and some of the roofs were blown off," she said Jan. 24.
"My house is a one-story huddled among mostly two-story houses," Zuñiga said, "so it stayed mainly protected except for the back fence being knocked down, a fist-sized hole punched in the side of the exterior wall to the point of seeing the insulation inside, and the newly installed gutter system banged and dented.
"But the worse home hit in the neighborhood was a two-story house three houses down from me on the same side of the street. Its back part of the roof was blown off, exposing the wood beams and making the house unlivable for now."
Zuñiga said her next-door neighbor had just returned home from work and was taking out the garbage when she turned and saw the funnel heading from the Ellington area straight for their neighborhood.
"I heard my Ring doorbell camera while I was at work and checked my camera, seeing my neighbor with a garbage bag in hand. I was surprised because it was pouring downtown by our office, but I didn't see any rain from the camera view in the neighborhood. Then my camera zapped offline," she told the Texas Catholic Herald.
Later that evening Zuñiga's neighbor told her it was at that moment "when she saw the funnel coming toward her. She dropped the garbage bag and ran through her open garage door. ... She and her 3-year-old son and her mother huddled inside the house as they heard the wind howl and debris bashing against the walls and heard a big crash from upstairs when a fence post busted a hole in their wall and broke a window."
Zuñiga said after the rain stopped, neighbors were hammering, boarding up broken windows, and shouting out directions as they were putting blue tarps over torn roofs. Others were walking the neighborhood assessing and still in shock over the damage and how fast the tornado tore through before heading into Pasadena and Deer Park.
After she saw "the even more extensive damage in neighboring Pasadena and Deer Park on the evening and this morning’s news," she said, she definitely wanted to go to Mass the day after the storm on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Jan. 25, "to give thanks that no one was hurt or killed."