ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Do you remember the tornado that ripped through several Abilene neighborhoods in 2019? It’s already been four years since. Although the city had seen similar storms in the past, the sudden and devastating storm from May 18, 2019 was the first in many years to cause such damage in the city proper.
The Helm family – Heather and Denison – moved to Abilene in 2015. Coming from Oklahoma, they had knowledge and experience with tornadoes. But the storm that came through around 6:00 a.m. took them completely by surprise.
“I woke up to go to the bathroom for the millionth time, like you do when you’re pregnant, and I saw the tornado warning… And my initial thought was it’s probably nothing,” Heather recalled.
Denison told his account, “Everything was quite still, and in that same instant, everything went crazy… The wind picked up, bushes started rattling, and then I saw the transformers explode and at that moment, I knew that it was game on.”
With their tornado knowledge intact, Heather said her husband knew just what to do.
“He comes in with the comforter, he shuts the door, lights go out, and then he gets on top of me,” said Heather. “We have the blanket over us and that was the longest 15 seconds of my life.”
The seconds spent in shelter were far outweighed by the following moments. Surveying their neighborhood, the Helms found destruction all around them. Theirs and their neighbors’ homes would be condemned over the following weeks.
“I honestly don’t think that it hit me until 48 hours afterwards… Like okay we’re about to have our first baby in two weeks and we have nowhere to go,” remembered Heather.
As quickly as the storm arrived, first responders were headed to the scene. Abilene Deputy Fire Chief Michael Burden said although there was nothing they could do to stop the destruction, their coordinated response with police and city emergency services went into action immediately.
“Our number one goal was search and rescue… It was still dark out and there was still rain coming down, so our guys were still using flashlights and hand lanterns to get through the neighborhoods, but you really couldn’t drive through the neighborhoods with the trucks. There was too many trees and shingles blocking the roads,” Chief Burden told KTAB/KRBC.
The physical effects of such a storm are undeniable, but the Helms said even more long lasting were the mental scars left behind by such a sudden and traumatizing event.
“It definitely has a long-term psychological effect. Any time I hear the wind pick up, I instantly get chills,” revealed Denison. “I get chills up my spine and the adrenaline starts pumping.”
While Abilene Police and Fire Departments had run response drills in the past, Chief Burden said this was the first time they were able to use that plan in action. The coordinated efforts proved invaluable as they searched for survivors and worked to rebuild lives in the following months and years.
“Things like this are not really wake up calls, but they’re reminders that we need to be diligent. We need to be ready; we need to make sure that we’re thinking about what could be happening next,” Chief Burden added.