Onalaska continues cleanup efforts after tornado destroys 300 homes

The clean-up continues in Polk County following Wednesday’s deadly EF 3 tornado. Experts from the National Weather Service believe the twister had 140 mph winds and is the deadliest in the Houston region since 1987.

Three people were killed, more than 30 were injured, and roughly 300 homes were damaged or destroyed.

On Friday, we met Henry Smith who lives in one of the hardest-hit areas in Onalaska, the Yaupon Cove neighborhood. According to Smith, he heard the tornado rumbling towards his home while he was eating dinner with his wife.

“It was just roaring like crazy,” said Smith. “[Then], it was just a big boom. Pow. It was over quick.”

The powerful twister tore Smith’s home in half. Walls were completely blown away while multiple trees fell on their roof. Smith says he was bruised, but the roof collapse caused his wife to need immediate medical attention. According to Smith, his wife had to be air-lifted to a hospital Wednesday, but she is now okay and has been released.

Much of Onalaska was impacted by the tornado. The community created a donation station at Garland Pavilion to help those in need.

“The whole town has just brought all of this stuff up,” said Billie Fredericks from Trinity Baptist Church. “A whole store for free.”
Polk County is now under 2 un-related disaster declarations. One for Wednesday’s deadly twister, and a second for the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just a lot for our residents all at one time,” said Polk County Judge Sydney Murphey. “We are trying to make sure we start emphasizing social distancing again.”

As of Friday evening, 18 people in Polk County had tested positive for COVID-19. While the county has spent the last few weeks trying to “flatten the curve”, Murphey admits social distancing wasn’t a thought during the tornado because of obvious reasons.

“We know we’re going to get a spike,” said Murphey. “There’s no way when you have that many people trying to pull people out from under debris. We know it’s going to happen. We just need to be prepared for it.”

Despite the risks of getting sick, the tornado torn community continues to help one another recover from Wednesday’s deadly storm.

“It’s what the community needs,” said Fredericks. “I may get sick. My friends and family may get sick. It’s what we need to do.”

Much of Onalaska remains without power and running water. If you’d like to donate, they’re accepting donations and volunteers at the Garland Pavilion.