New Year, New Priorities


Destroyed insurance company office on Hwy 66 in Rowlett

This post is part of a coalition of architects posting on a single topic, each interpreting it in their own way, known as Architalks. This month the topic is your “New Year, New _____”

On December 26th, around 7pm, my home town of Rowlett was hit by an EF4 tornado.  This is the sort of thing you hear about on the news, that you don’t see first hand.  I can’t recall that I’d ever seen a disaster of this scale in person, and certainly not in my community. It really makes you stop and think about your priorities.


Image via the City of Rowlett Website

In Rowlett, 1,400 homes were damaged with well over half of those resulting in a total loss, but miraculously, there were on 23 injuries, and no fatalities.  We have friends that lost their homes.  The path of the storm abated only a mile and a half from our home.  We didn’t even loose any Christmas decorations.


Homes along Chiesa Rd. in Rowlett

I was out at the movies with my brother-in-law when the storm came through.  My wife and his were huddled in the guest bathroom with their two month old daughter at the time, and we had no idea.  Not until the theater shut down the movie and told us to seek shelter.  We tried getting a hold of them but were unable to.  I don’t know if the cell tower in our neighborhood simply lost power or was damaged, but we ended up without cell service for about 4 days.  Storms in this area tend to run NE in their trajectory, and upon exiting the theater we saw the storm appeared to be both North and East of us, so we decided to head home.  It was eerily quite the entire way.  We didn’t see any damage, but when we arrived at my house the power was out.  We didn’t know until the next morning what had really happened.  Through the night (we didn’t get power back until about 2:30am) we listened to a hand-crank storm radio and we knew there had been some damage, and there were reports that a nursing home in the area had been hit, with residents evacuated, but that was really it.


Senior Care Rowlett the day after the storm


The next morning, when the sun came up and the news agencies sent their helicopters out, that’s when we saw what had hit us, and come terrifyingly close to our house.  The good thing about power coming back was that we were able to post on Twitter and Facebook pretty quickly that we were fine, which helped because once the news went national our phones exploded.   In speaking with some friends we’d found out that they were coming back from dinner the night before and ran into a family of six who’d fled the destruction in this car with little more that their clothes and their lives:


Photograph by Todd Sharp

Our friends immediately asked what they could do to help, and ended up buying them diapers for their baby and leaving them with some cash.  They didn’t have any wallets or purses.

It was incredible.  That Sunday, the entire city looked like a war zone.  When we ventured out, just to the south of our house, there was debris everywhere, chunks of framing with jagged nails lying in the street, furniture ripped apart and hanging from trees.  Police from municipalities all over the Metroplex were out in force, checking IDs, protecting neighborhoods from looters.  Local neighborhoods patrolled their own streets, in a few instance cornering looters themselves at gun point until the police could be called.  It was unreal.

I’d never felt so powerless.  As an architect, our very profession is centered on creation, and to see so much of what we do gone so quickly was sobering.  Sunday our local neighborhood organized a donation drive for water food and clothing.  Within hours 6 truckloads of goods went to the local Red Cross emergency center.  It was amazing how the community came together in the same way.  Churches mobilized and volunteers flocked to help.  Literally within days of the tornado, local groups asked for a pause in the donations because there were so many.  Even the local animal shelter was overflowing with food.  It was truly incredible.

As 2016 starts, the events of a couple weeks ago hang heavy on my mind.  My wife and I have plans to build a new house just across the lake in Rockwall this year.  It’s funny because I’ve designed it to have a basement, which Texans tend to look on as an amusing folly (we don’t have basements down here).  Until now.

Ultimately, however, the response by the city and the myriad of businesses and corporations that jumped in to help has made me appreciate where we live, and what a community really is.

My grandfather lived in Glenwood Springs, CO and just over the ridge from where is house stood was the infamous South Canyon Fire which killed 14 firefighters.  Living where he did, wildfires were a reality that you lived with and he did one brilliant thing that I think everyone should consider.  He made a list of everything in his life that was valuable to him.  Just a little list of what in his house he would want to take if he only have 15 minutes to evacuate.  So many people (myself included) would be frozen, trying to think what they would take, what is important enough to worry about.  He actually used this list and planned it such that he could pack his car with everything and be out in 15 minutes (funnily enough I believe he ran this as a drill a few times…ahhh to be retired!).  I’ve been meaning to do the same for years (the list…not the drills…although that would be fun).  While a tornado certainly doesn’t afford you even this modicum of preparation time, if disaster does strike, and you do have the time to think about more than just your lives, it’s something to think about.  Because you never know.

I’ve made my list now.


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If you’d like to help Rowlett, I’d encourage you to do this instead:

The #ArchiTalks community is hoping to raise $5,500 to help Architect Rusty Long (aka @rustylong) and his family reach their financial goal on If each reader of this post contributes a small amount, our impact will be massive and we can make a difference for Matthew’s family. Click here now and donate $2.00.

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01 2016
  • octhse

    I’m sorry to hear about your town 🙁 Sometimes it feels like nobody can ever catch a break. I’m am heartened to read about your new house. I am definitely interested in your project since I’m buying a house in February built in 1920 and will be hiring an architect in the near future to redesign it completely. I look forward to seeing your own house progress 🙂

  • Jonathan Brown

    Thanks. Ohh…that sounds like fun. I hope you post some pics! I’ll definitely be posting on the progress of my house once we get underway.

  • A.C. Flory

    Wow. Are tornadoes ‘normal’ in the Rowlett area? Apologies if that’s a stupid question but I’m in Australia and we don’t really get tornadoes here. We do get bushfires though and many of us have bunkers. I think designing your new house with a defensible basement is commonsense. Best of luck for the future.