Storm warning

On April 25, 1994, the weather-radar screen on Bill Gaither's television was ominous. The Lancaster city manager apprehensively watched the red blips as they moved toward his city. The pulsating pinpoints of light predicted a swift and destructive approaching storm. Pretty soon, barring a miracle, major turbulence would reach the city of Lancaster, which rests on the southern crest of the Dallas metropolitan area.

The city's emergency warning sirens sounded minutes later. Gaither, 50, ordered his wife and three children into the closet under the stairs.

Then he peered out the window. The sky glowed green, and the air felt thick. Air pressure dropped so low his ears began to pop. Sirens could no longer be heard because the tornado that had dropped down on Lancaster was louder. "It sounded like a train passing," Gaither remembers.

He joined his terrified family. They crouched in the closet and prayed together for their lives. The only audible sound was the tempest.

After 10 minutes--a seeming eternity--the roar melted away. Gaither heard glass crashing somewhere in the house. The Gaithers emerged from their hiding place and saw that windows had been blown out, furniture overturned, dishes broken. Over the upstairs master bedroom where a portion of roof used to be, Gaither saw the Texas sky. Rain poured through the hole.

The next morning, Gaither and other city officials, including Mayor Margie Waldrop, toured the devastation the whirlwind had left behind.

The storm had been extremely selective. The tornado had destroyed older, wood-frame homes in a handful of middle-class neighborhoods; it had totally obliterated one home, yet left untouched the house next door. Before blowing out of Lancaster, the twister dropped down on the city's emotional heart, its favored town square. Here sat a small brick square of shops and restaurants surrounding a courtyard whose centerpiece was a stone well. The western-style square had always been a place where residents and tourists alike browsed and congregated. Now, about half of its shops, banks, and restaurants lay in ruins.

At least one neighborhood was totally wiped out. Lancaster teacher Fred Harvey remembers, "You didn't know where to turn, because you had always got to Frances street by turning on that corner with the green house on the left. But now, it was not there, or it was no longer green."

In all, the tornado destroyed more than 500 structures, injured 40 people, and was blamed for the deaths of three elderly residents. Certain Lancaster neighborhoods had become worthless plots of ravaged land.

In communities other than Lancaster, the severe damage would perhaps have resulted in the community being bent on a single goal: rebuilding its town. Instead, in the two years since Lancaster's tornado, the small city of about 23,000 has been divided by emotionalism and distrust. The school board has been falling apart, racial tensions have been erupting in full view of the Dallas media, and confidence in local politics and officials has reached an all-time low. Virtually no rebuilding of the town has taken place.

The strife has been so extreme that a group of architects and urban planners, who in '94 were donating their time to help Lancaster reorganize, temporarily abandoned their project in despair after realizing the community members could not work together.

Today, empty lots proliferate. Hundred-year-old trees appear contorted, their jutting branches leafless. A few homeowners have attempted rehabilitation of their homes, but many have simply done unfortunate patch jobs--wood porches propped up by two-by-fours and cheap shingles nailed to damaged walls. "For sale" signs are numerous. Many central Lancaster streets appear deserted.

Two years after the disaster, Lancaster is still a disaster area.
The ragged appearance of Lancaster today is not consistent with its past. Historically, it has been the pride of its founding families--all of them white and well-off--who trace their Lancaster roots to the pre-Civil War era.

Blocks from the town square, turn-of-the-century Victorian and Prairie houses still grace some streets, hundred-year-old structures on well-tended lawns. With their Doric columns and intricate moldings, the homes contributed to the town's distinctive character before the tornado.

The tornado of 1994, however, was not Lancaster's first tragedy. It has always endured its share of natural disasters, including a fire that destroyed the south side of the town square back in 1877. In 1910, a resident was burning leaves when a gust of wind blew the entire city into flames. In 1935, a powerful storm struck the community, toppling--among other things--the city's 50,000-gallon water tank. Still, the community always seemed to recover.

This disaster has been different. Hopes for the future have been buried beneath acrimonious debate in a community that has not acknowledged or accommodated its racial changes. According to members of Lancaster's minority communities, minorities have never been included in major decision-making. This is despite the fact that, during the 1980s, the black population alone grew from 12 percent to 30 percent of city residents.

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Denise Mcvea