An EF4 tornado plowed,
leaving Lisa clinging to her spouse.
leaving Lisa clinging to her spouse.
Dec. 26 at the Alvizo home on Pacific Drive in Rowlett was supposed to be a quiet, family evening. Early dinner. Put away Christmas gifts. A deep, relaxing respite from the holiday hustle ‘n bustle.
By 6 p.m. you’re in your favorite Superman “sleepy pants” and …
“You don’t expect tornadoes around Christmas,” says Lisa Santos-Alvizo. “And never in a million years do you think you’ll be hit by one. But … here we are.”
Married to Fernando Alvizo last August, step-mother to two daughters and – sure enough – pregnant, Lisa on that Saturday afternoon headed home from work at her hair salon in Plano. A quick stop at the Wal-Mart off Dalrock Road and on to cook dinner – Shake ‘n Bake chicken, broccoli and salad.
“Who knows where that dinner wound up,” she says with a chuckle. “Probably still in the oven. But who knows where that oven ended up.”
She knew bad, eerie, Spring-like thunderstorms were rolling through the Metroplex. And at 6:32 pm. the neighborhood emergency sirens sounded. Like we all have done, she heard them, briefly paused and then, naw, never in a million years.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” she shrugs. “You live in this area long enough and you’ll hear your share of tornado sirens. In 1979 in Oklahoma I saw cows swept into the air by a tornado. I knew what they could do …”
But when Fernie pulled into the garage from church much earlier than expected, she felt something was different. Something was wrong. Something, was coming.
“I’m going about my business, about to get out plates for dinner and he checks the radar,” she says. “Um, yeah, we saw it headed right toward us. Something told me right then that this wasn’t going to be the nice, quiet evening we needed in between Christmas and New Year’s.”
Quickly, but not yet frantically gathering her purse and her beloved Chihuahua “Cowboy”, Lisa was suddenly jolted by Fernie’s scream.
And for the next 10 minutes, Lisa, Fernie, 10-year-old Marlee, 6-year-old Maddyn and Cowboy hunkered down in the safest place in their house – and absorbed the full brunt of an EF4 tornado. With Cowboy in her lap and a flashlight in her hand, she sat alongside Fernie, who prayed loudly. The girls huddled closely on an adjacent plastic tote.
“At that point I’m just trying to be calm, to keep the girls calm,” Lisa says. “They’re feeding off of us, and we’ve got assure them that we’re going to be okay. We tried to pray loud enough that they didn’t hear what was really going on right around us.”
But that convincing becomes more difficult when Fernie’s prayers are abruptly interrupted by the violent sounds of 2x4s snapping and shingles slamming into walls. And then, with the sound of a deafening freight train, the tornado carved a direct path into the Alvizo home. The group was lifted into the air twice, and not-so-gently slammed back into the ground – or what used to be their floor.
“Surreal,” she says. “There’s no doubt we were all in the air. Your sense of awareness is just all out of whack.”
The turbulence, the noise, the free ride – it lasts all of 15 seconds. And then …
“We knew were okay because we were talking to each other,” she says. “And because we were all covered in clothes that had fallen off the racks in the closet.”
It was pitch black. And it was, wet?
“I was hugging Marlee and I felt her back was all wet,” says Lisa. “That’s when I looked up and just saw the sky. There was no roof. That’s when I knew we had just survived a tornado.”
Carefully moving because they didn’t really know what was on top of them or – worse – what was beneath them (they had a pool in their back yard), the group climbed out from the debris and heard voices approaching. Neighbors, stunned that anyone survived the totally flattened house, helped them to safety. It was raining. The daughters were barefoot. The smell was of natural gas (“Rotten eggs everywhere,” Lisa says) and there were numerous explosions of transformers and live electrical wires dancing dangerously along their street.
Finally able to get a signal on her phone, she phoned her brother, Hector, to say "We've been hit!" A cousin soon arrived with umbrellas and hugs and a ride to safety. Less than 30 minutes after the tornado had leveled their home, the Alvizos were sitting numb in Hector's house, contemplating their brush with death, the reality of their house, the steps needed to …
“Ernie!” Lisa shrieked out around 4 a.m. the next morning. “We’ve got to go get Ernie!!”
It was the ashes of her deceased brother,tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 2010. He was Lisa’s hero. And he was resting in an urn in her new home. First crack of dawn and Lisa and Hector were back at the mountain of debris that just 12 hours earlier was her tidy little home. Somehow, Hector immediately found Ernie.
“He was next to my grandmother’s 70-year-old wedding ring,” Lisa says, “and underneath his chaplain’s license.”
Not everything – or everyone – was so lucky.
The storms in North Texas that night killed 13 people, including one in Rowlett. Both Lisa and Fernie’s cars were destroyed. She lost a ring she’d just received on her birthday. The family’s Christmas tree – and most of their presents – were swept away, and as of yet still not recovered.
“We lost … just about everything,” Lisa says, fighting back a tear. “It’s just such an empty, naked feeling. I mean, material things are replaceable, but it’s just a horrible feeling starting from scratch. I wanted to brush my teeth the next morning, but I had no idea where my bathroom was, much less my toothbrush. I just want to cook in my kitchen and lay on my couch and … it’s going to take a long time to rebuild that.”
Amidst the daunting task of canceling credit cards and opening new bank accounts and and haggling with insurance companies for new cars and deciding whether to buy a home elsewhere or re-build on the same lot, there is hope. And joy.
The family, other than emotional scars and material losses, survived a tornado. As did its cat Max, who was found hiding under a mattress three days after the tornado. And its rabbit Clover, discovered the same day shivering and scared but otherwise okay in what was left of the workout room. Lisa found Cowboy’s cage – a mangled mess of twisted iron.
“Believe me, we know we were lucky,” Lisa says. “I’ve had some tragedies in my life, but so far my chances haven’t run out.”
A GoFundMe Page established for the Alvizo family has so far raised approximately $10,000.