Alto tornados two years later

by John Hawkins

ALTO – April 13, 2019, started out as a beautiful spring day in East Texas. People were in their gardens, washing their cars and doing all those outside spring-time chores they finally had the chance to get caught up with.

All that changed drastically as the clouds started forming in the west.
Ominous-looking clouds – ones we’ve all seen before in sudden spring-time storms, but this time turned deadly, as not one, but two tornados, formed.

The first tornado touched down two miles north of the Neches River near the Cherokee County and Houston County line. It snapped several hundred trees at their trunks before destroying two single wide mobile homes and ripping the roof off of a single family home at the end of Route 220 near County Road 2806. At this point, the winds were estimated at its strongest at approximately 120 mph.

The second tornado also crossed the Neches River from Houston County and into Cherokee County. That storm also snapped and uprooted thousands of trees along its path. The storm followed Texas Highway 21 before getting to Alto, where it severely damaged or destroyed approximately 20 homes.
Included along the path of damage was the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site building which had its roof torn off, nearly almost all of its exterior walls removed and was left with only a few interior rooms in the building. A grass house constructed in 2016 by volunteers was obliterated.

People gathered at the site to celebrate Caddo Culture Day found themselves running to what they believed was safety indoors when the building was destroyed by the tornado, resulting in one fatality and several serious injuries. Multiple cars in the parking lot were thrown 150 yards into trees and across Highway 21, with a nearby double-wide mobile home lifted and thrown 50 yards from its original site.

As the tornado continued along Highway 21, it destroyed a dairy farm near Caddo Mounds, with more significant damage at a single family home and at St. Thomas Chapel, which saw their roofs removed and exterior walls collapsed. Winds were estimated at 160 mph at this point.

The storm then went on to destroy several residences before hitting Alto Elementary and Alto High School, continuing on its track as it snapped and debarked several trees in rural Cherokee County north of Alto.

The tornado was on the ground nearly continuously for approximately 36 miles.

Even today, scars of that fateful day are still seen in the Alto area in the vacant lots where homes once stood, and in the new construction to replace or repair damage at other sites.

Traveling along Highway 21 west out of town, one can see the path the storms took as their eye catches huge patches of bare earth.
Construction has started again to rebuild the Caddo Mound Historic Site office and gathering center, while a new structure is beginning to take shape at the Alto High School.

Our small town might have been knocked to its knees … but never knocked down. Through the generosity and help from literally thousands of people, Alto – instead of looking back – can now look forward to a growing future.