Stories About the October 2019 Storm Still Give ‘Chills’

Almost a year after EF3 Tornado Hit Preston Hollow, a Family Comes Home

Two weeks.

That’s how long the McCleskey family had been in their home before disaster struck on Oct. 20.

When they chose their fairly new home on Pemberton Drive, Randall and Karen McCleskey had no way of knowing that it would one day be in the direct path of an EF3 tornado.

They picked it because they liked the builder, and because it had plenty of room for Karen, Randall, and their granddaughter, Mikayla, as well as Mikayla’s father, Andrew, and their other son, Clayton, when they came to town.

“We knew the builder, the original builder, and we knew we wanted to do some things to upgrade – the home was only 10, 12 years old, but there were some things we wanted to do.” Karen said. The renovations to the home meant it they had only just moved in – boxes were still unpacked  when the tornado struck.

The family said the day was fairly ordinary to start. It was Sunday. They had gone to Royal Lane Baptist Church to pick out pumpkins. They had some of Mikayla’s friends over.

The McCleskey family hosted friends of their granddaughter, Mikayla, just hours before the tornado struck. This was one of the last photos Karen McCleskey took that day before the storm came.

“I had actually forgotten that the Cowboys were playing late. We didn’t have a TV on or anything,” Randall said. “And I remember Karen mentioned to me about just a little bit after nine o’clock. She said, ‘I think it’s supposed to rain tonight’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been outside, and I was like, ‘I don’t think so, it’s a nice evening.’”

But it wasn’t much later that their phones began alerting them to a tornado warning. Randall flipped on the TV.

“The news reporter says, ‘There’s a tornado on the ground in Dallas County; details when we come back from these messages,’” Randall said. “And I’m thinking, ‘You know, that’s awful. Some poor schmuck is sitting there with a tornado coming right at him. And he doesn’t even know. He’s gonna have to wait for these commercials to find out.’”

“Then they came back they showed, you know, where they thought the tornado was. I think Karen noticed it first and said, ‘You know, it’s coming right at us,’” he continued. “The schmuck was me.”

Then the sirens began sounding. “I just went, ‘Oh my gosh – Karen, go get the dogs, I’ll go get Mikayla,” Randall recalled.

Then the lights went out as Randall navigated the stairs to reach Mikayla upstairs, and brought her – still asleep – to a closet under the stairs.

“He just woke me up,” Mikayla said.

“You woke up and we were in the downstairs closet,” her grandmother said.

The two huddled with their granddaughter in a downstairs closet, listening as the storm threw debris at their house. At one point, just as they had all gotten settled, Randall remembered he left his phone in the kitchen. He ventured out for it, and realized the storm had turned very violent. He crawled back to the closet, staying low to the ground.

“I realized that I’d left my cell phone on in the kitchen,” Randall recalled. “And I’m still not really convinced this was a big deal. And so I said, ‘You know what, I left my phone in the kitchen. I’m going to go get it,’ and Karen’s like, ‘Don’t do that,’ but I thought it would be fine, so I got out of the closet and walk to the kitchen in the dark and looked at the big windows in the back and I thought I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that is a very violent storm.’

“I was struck by how violent it was. I had no idea. And that’s really, I think at that point, right in the belly of the tornado. And I got my phone and then I heard something hitting the windows – if any of this comes through the glass, I’m gonna be Swiss cheese. So I got down on my knees and crawl back to the closet.”

“I barely opened the door,” Karen said.

“I wasn’t sure she was going to let me back in,” Randall said.

“I’m sick of hearing this story over and over,” interjected Mikayla. “It gives me the chills.”

Then the winds and the noise stopped. The trio waited a bit longer before venturing out, but soon realized they had another problem – the closet was flooding with water.

“It took us by such surprise that we just scrambled to get into that closet. So we got out in complete darkness with no flashlights, just water,” Karen said, adding that as a family with two Eagle Scouts, they were usually a lot more prepared, but hadn’t yet unpacked the boxes with their safety kits and flashlights. “And so while we were in the closet, and we could hear the storm passing, and in about 40 seconds the whole thing passed by, but also there was water collecting around our feet. And it was just such a strange sensation because I grew up in Corpus Christi with hurricanes and I knew that water but I mean, where’s the water in Dallas?”

“Everything seemed intact, but there was this water coming, over covering our shoes and we could hear this water rushing and we could not figure out what was happening,” she added. Turns out, a tree branch had been driven into the home.

Randall headed out to turn the water off at the house, but still, the water continued to rise. Then he realized that it must be the fire sprinklers, and turned the water off at the street.

Silence.

“That stopped it but you know, the by the end the whole bottom floor of the house was just flooded,” Randall said. “And we lost a fairly big section of roof on the back of the house. And then some damage to the outside of the house.”

Downstairs took the brunt of the damage, with walls soaked three feet from the floor, hardwood floors and kitchen cabinets, and all the furniture was ruined. All of it was brand new, too.

They finally reached their sons. Clayton found a hotel for them. Andrew located a friend with a large truck who was able to get within a few blocks of the McCleskey home. Randall and Karen loaded Mikayla into a wagon and ventured out using the light from their cell phones to navigate debris-filled streets until they could reach their transportation.

“Mikayla was an unbelievable trooper,” Randall said. I mean, she was amazing kid. She, she had more courage than than we did.”

“The driveway was blocked, the streets were blocked,” Karen said. “Trying to get out of there, we look back on it and it was really probably not smart to have walked the two blocks that we did to get to get his car because we don’t really know what we walked on. The next day, it was shocking.”

“We really didn’t know what we were going to come across in this two block journey because at that time, we hadn’t heard any news reports of casualties and we just had no idea what we were getting ready to experience,” Randall said. “And fortunately, and to my utter amazement to this day, you know, nobody got killed.”

Mikayla and Karen left for the hotel, and Randall stayed behind to continue to assess the damage, and maybe remove some of the water from his home.

The next morning, Mikayla reported to her classes at Lamplighter, and Karen was able to walk from there to their heavily-damaged home and see for the first time exactly what her family had survived.

She also began getting calls and texts from friends.

“I would just say that once we got out and then the next morning you know, Mikayla went to school – to Lamplighter – and the outpouring of support from Lamplighter was unbelievable,” Karen said. “The friends that were reaching out to see how they can help and what they could do … and neighbors were all helping each other. I will tell you the city’s response and Oncor’s response was incredible.”

The McCleskeys also had support from their church family at First United Methodist Church-Dallas, and from newfound friends at the Preston Hollow Women’s Club.

“We had over 120 text messages that next morning, and and majority of them are from friends at church checking in on us and wanting to know what to do, and, and just some just showing up and I mean, I don’t know how they got here, but they, you know, just, you know, came to help,” said Karen.

Boo and Robert Owens – church members who once lived on Glendora – called from Cambodia.

“They called from Cambodia and gave us their home to live in for a week,” she said. “We had realized after the first couple of nights at the hotel, we were not going to be moving into our house anytime soon. So while they continued to travel, we stayed in their home.”

Even strangers stepped up to help the family.

“The Preston Hollow Women’s Club, oh my goodness, I got a phone call from the president of the club, who I had not even met because we had just moved in to the area and I had just joined,” Karen said. “And she reached out and asked what they could do, they could bring a meal and the first night we were in our rental home.”

Before she knew it, an entire meal had been delivered.

“You know, those kinds of things, that outreach was incredible. I didn’t know any of these women – I have friends in the Preston Hollow Women’s Club, but I had not been active. The outreach was just really, really special,” she said.

Eventually, they were able to locate a rental home nearby, where they found more welcoming neighbors. A friend came and brought Halloween inflatables to decorate the yard. Neighbors invited Mikayla to Halloween festivities. She trick-or-treated.

Their builder – Hawkins Welwood Homes – returned to the home to help set it to rights. The family was able to move back in to their home in September 2020.

But even as they move back in to their home, they are stunned at how quickly their lives changed.

“At the end of the day, we still just cannot believe that we had been here, three weeks and within a 40 second time period, it was all gone,” Karen said.

“Years before, I had participated in I guess three mission trips up to Oklahoma when they had the big tornado in Moore,” Randall recalled. “I wasn’t supposed to be the guy that needs to help – I was supposed to be the guy helping. So the tables got turned and it was very difficult to get your head around.”

But for now, the three are glad to be re-starting that new chapter in their lives, safe, sound, and dry.

Read more of our look back at the Oct. 20, 2019, tornado here.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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