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Life returns to normal for lone tornado victims

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Submitted by DAVID PORTER

DALLAS—Life returned to normal for Kelly Harris and his family as workers hung the last gutter on the edge of their roof in Ferris Tuesday, Nov. 16. Gone is most of the evidence that a tornado devastated their home Wednesday, Sept. 8.

A criminal justice student at the University of North Texas at Dallas, Harris, 51, was at home studying for a test when his wife, Sharon, called from Dallas Christian School in Mesquite at 5:20 p.m. He thought she was joking when she said there was a tornado in Ferris because it wasn’t raining and the wind wasn’t blowing, but he realized she was serious when she urged him to take cover.

Harris and his wife and two daughters live in what he calls a combination house/shop. He ran outside underneath the large awning to have a look, "And sure enough, there was a funnel cloud coming right at me."

The tornado cleared the tree line about 400 yards away and touched the ground. Harris couldn’t believe his eyes.

"I was mesmerized. I was like, this is like a movie. This can’t be happening."

Realizing he needed to take cover, he turned around to run back inside his house as he saw their trampoline shoot up 50 to 60 feet and take off like a rocket. He had six to eight seconds, he said, to get his three dogs in a tight closet, and then it felt like the house was coming apart.

"I thought, well, here it is. It’s over. I thought the house was coming completely apart. It sounded like thousands of hammers beating on the house simultaneously."

Harris looks like a typical student at UNT Dallas, dressed in blue jeans and carrying a large blue backpack, except that his right arm is in a sling after rotator cuff surgery Friday, Nov. 12—"an old injury from a fire that I just never dealt with properly," he explained. As he recounts the terror of sitting in that closet two months earlier, his calm voice never rises.

He was a Dallas fireman and paramedic for 24 years working in almost every fire station in the city. He worked a lot of five-alarm apartment fires and countless life-and-death emergencies throughout his career.

"You’ve got to realize that I was trained and conditioned for this day. We were trained in rookie school and mass casualty simulations, and I’ve been in so many different crises and situations."

As the building shook, he thought about God and said, "Dear God …" but didn’t have time to pray because it was over in 20 or 30 seconds, he said.

Once the noise stopped and it was "semi-safe" to leave, Harris ran out the front of the house in time to see the funnel cloud leaving his farm and going back up in the air. Rain started pouring into the second-floor bedrooms as part of the roof and several skylights had been peeled away. He ran over to the shop—a large area where he stores equipment—where most of the damage occurred to discover half the roof and an overhead door gone and a pole sticking out of his truck. A 25-foot-by-80-foot awning had flipped across the roof peeling part of it away.

A close friend, Mike Tucker, came minutes later, and they started patching the roof. There was no structural damage, but part of the house section had severe water damage, so they had to repaint and replace all of the carpet and some of the furniture in the bedrooms. Tucker finished installing skylights and other work Nov. 17.

Harris grew up in Seagoville. He and his wife bought acreage and moved to Ferris in 1994, ironically the same year his brother Gary’s house was damaged by a deadly tornado that roared through nearby Lancaster.

He started taking classes at El Centro Community College and online through the Dallas County Community College District in February. He enrolled at UNT Dallas in May, and he has been taking heavy loads so that he can graduate next summer.

"Luckily, my office area/study room was somehow left intact."

Harris is pursuing a lifelong dream by studying for the law school entrance exam. He is the president of the school’s pre-law society and is trying to build credibility and stability for the organization. He said he would love to go to the new UNT Dallas School of Law, which he organized a tour of for the society recently.

"My main focus is trying to help give back and help others and reach out so everybody can benefit and be successful while simultaneously trying to make some decent grades."

He wants to go into general or criminal or real estate law because of his experience in real estate. Since retiring from firefighting in 2004, he’s run his own commercial real estate business.

"It’s what I’ve always truly wanted to do, but the voices in my head said you can’t do this. You’ll never make it. Now I’m trying to conquer those voices."

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Gretchen Choe is faculty advisor to the pre-law society. She has been impressed with Harris and how he has taken the initiative in leading the society yet remained extremely humble.

"He has proven to be very diligent as a student and a leader, even through adversity." 

Regarding the tornado, Harris believes it was clearly an act of God. A member of Meadowview Church of Christ, he said it hasn’t hurt his faith.

"It’s hard to explain how this could have happened. It was like God said, ‘How do you like that, Bubba?’ I just took it in stride and went on with it. It never fazed me on that. I never asked, ‘God, why did this happen?’ It’s a mystery that I’ll never know. Maybe in time it will be revealed, but I can’t answer why it hit my house and went back up in the sky."

Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for UNT DALLAS

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