Volunteers plan to rebuild a traditional Caddo grass house at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site after a tornado in April 2019 destroyed this one. Photo by Kevin B. Stillman

At first glance, filled with the bright blooms and lyrical birdsong of early spring, Caddo Mounds State Historic Site seems a place of endless peace, inhabited only by the beauty of nature and the whispers of its rich and ancient past.

“We’re already getting some visitors who aren’t aware of what happened here,” says Rachel Galan, assistant site manager at the remote 397-acre East Texas site.

A year has passed since a powerful tornado struck Caddo Mounds on April 13, 2019. The EF-3 twister arrived without warning during the annual Caddo Culture Day, claiming one life and injuring 30 to 40 others as the site’s museum collapsed and winds up to 160 miles per hour hurled debris through the air.

After months of cleanup and repairs, Caddo Mounds State Historic Site reopened in a limited capacity in January, but this week it closed again as part of the state’s widespread effort to contain COVID-19. Site officials say they’re still working on their plans to rebuild the visitor center, but for now, volunteers have put on hold their harvesting of switchgrass to build a new traditional Caddo grass house.

A year after the tornado, evidence of the natural disaster remains in the area: trees stripped of their branches and shorn to half their height; overturned outbuildings and mangled wreckage around homes; the empty foundation where Caddo Mounds’ museum once stood. The effects on the people who experienced the event are harder to measure but no less severe or lasting. Galan’s husband, among the disaster’s most critically hurt, suffered a spinal cord injury.

“Alaina Tahlate, a Caddo tribal member, gave us a name for our tornado experience—shaho,” Galan says. “That experience is personal, communal, and evolving. In shaho is the devastation to lives, the destruction of property, and the altering of the landscape. But also in shaho is the building of community, opportunities for healing, and the amazing journey of the recovery of people and places.”

“It’s here”

The 2019 Caddo Culture Day attracted around 50 to 80 visitors to the typically low-traffic site, many of them members of the Caddo tribe from the modern-day capital of the Caddo Nation in Binger, Oklahoma.

Rain had driven most visitors inside the museum, but Jeff Williams, president of the Friends of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, and four others were in the grass house outside. The prized structure—built by the Friends group and volunteers in 2016 under the leadership of a Caddo elder—extended to approximately 25 feet in diameter and 18 feet in height, displaying the traditional building materials and contents of a Caddo home. On the day of the festival, a large fire had been built at the house’s center. The rain began falling heavily, and that’s when they heard a sound that for Williams, who’d lived in Oklahoma as a child, was unmistakable. As Williams recalls, he turned to the man next to him and said, “It’s on the ground, it’s here now, and we’ve got no place to go.”

A tornado, which can occur anywhere cold and warm fronts converge, often gives no more than a few minutes warning. This tornado would stay on the ground for 44 miles, passing mostly through rural, low-population areas but also striking Caddo Mounds and the small town of Alto, 6 miles away.

“It was like somebody used a light switch and turned the daylight off,” Williams says. “It just went pitch black. And then the wind switched from the west and came in the east door, in such force that it picked up the entire fire.” Burning logs and hot coals slid across the floor. Williams saw flames race up the inside wall of the grass house like liquid. As he reached for the fire extinguisher, the house collapsed.

A Caddo couple who had tried to run to the museum when the tornado started were trapped in the open, clinging together on the ground. Williams managed to crawl out from beneath the wreckage of the house, narrowly avoiding its crushing weight as the structure was blown away, but was then faced with an onslaught of broken glass and other swirling debris. The roof collapsed on the museum, and many people were trapped or injured inside. As the storm raged on, Williams pressed himself into the mud. He was hit in the head by a folding chair and a pole; a large object struck his left side.

“But then it was suddenly over,” Williams says. “The wind was still blowing really hard, and there was still debris flying everywhere, but the tornado wasn’t on top of us.” Lifting his face to the pouring rain to wash blood and mud from his eyes, Williams crawled on hands and knees to the crumpled forms around him, finding that all were injured but still alive. He crawled between a husband and wife, separated in the storm, to tell each that the other was okay.

After the heaviest winds ceased, rescue efforts began, the less injured helping those who’d suffered more.

“We had two people that were trapped under a beam in the museum, and it took everyone—there were probably 15 of us in a line—to lift it off of them,” Williams says.

Visitors who had medical training helped treat and triage injuries. At least six people had been critically wounded. The injured who could be transferred safely were taken to the guest house on site, which had suffered less damage in the storm, while they waited for help.

“We could see the trees on the road, and we realized the emergency crews just couldn’t get to us,” Williams says.

Miles of downed trees separated the historic site from emergency responders in Alto. Rescue crews worked furiously, using every type of equipment available, but it would take them more than two hours to clear a path to the site. Medi-flight helicopters weren’t able to fly until the storm ended. “As soon as they were able to get through, we were inundated with 20 or 30 ambulances, and they brought in helicopters for the critically wounded,” Williams says.

The waiting was the hardest part, recalls Tony Souther, Caddo Mounds’ site manager. The injured would ask how much longer, and he had to tell them, again and again, he didn’t know. And yet in spite of the chaos and destruction, the atmosphere was one of calm.

Williams speaks of a young Caddo boy, wearing his ribbon shirt and other traditional regalia; the boy helped move one of the critically injured. Williams saw him listening to instructions intently. “I watched his face, and it was such fierce determination that he was going to do everything right and correct. It was pretty amazing to watch him step up. Everybody did, in fact.”

Resilience and Renewal

After the tornado, preparing Caddo Mounds for public visitation took more than eight months. Work crews cleared debris, cleaned and restored the exhibits, and a temporary visitor center was installed before the site’s January reopening.

Much work remains to be done: The Texas Legislature approved $2.5 million for a new museum building, and Galan says the construction plans are currently in the design and funding process. The Friends of Caddo Mounds hopes to raise funds to build another grass house.

As the one-year anniversary of the tornado arrives, Galan can often be found working in the site’s interpretive garden. She sows potatoes, squash, sunchokes, and beans, and thins out the new growth of purple-flowered henbit and sunflower seedlings. Her work is a reflection of the indigenous agricultural people who inhabited this land for roughly 400 years starting around A.D. 800.

Behind the garden, site’s three mounds, which the Caddo built for the purposes of ceremony and burial, rise low and green from the surrounding fields—lessened in stature over the centuries by erosion but undamaged by last year’s tornado.

Like all 31 of the Texas Historical Commission’s state historic sites, Caddo Mounds visitation is on pause at the moment. But in a time when it’s hard to imagine what comes next, the images on Caddo Mounds’ Facebook page of Indian blanket and sassafras leaves are balm to the soul, however, and the site’s progress is a reminder that what was damaged can, with patience and resilience, be restored.

“We have an opportunity to nurture and rebuild this place from the ground up,” Galan says, “to truly embrace our roles as custodians of the site and honor the voices of the Caddo people whose ancestors lie in the land.”

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