By America Meredith
Two tornadoes ripped through a cultural festival at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto, Texas, on Saturday, April 14. The storm ripped the roof off of the visitor’s center, lifted up cars, and destroyed the site’s grass lodge. Of the estimated 100 people attending the Caddo Culture Day celebration, 30 to 40 people were injured. Eight people sustained critical injuries, as local Sheriff James Campbell told KTRE Channel 9.  Several of the most seriously injured had to be medi-flighted to hospitals in helicopters. One fatality has been reported.
Located in Cherokee County, 26 miles west of Nacogdoches, the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site is a multi-mound village dating from 800 to 1300 CE. The site, also known as the George C. Davis Site (41CE19), hosts Caddo Cultural Day every spring. Caddo Mounds Manager Anthony Souther told KTRE this year’s crowds were smaller than usual due to the heavy rainfall.
Those injured by the tornado included Caddo artists, singers, and dancers, and members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas powwow committee and their relatives.
“It was a nightmare,” reported Caddo ceramic artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles late Saturday evening. “The Caddo Mounds site is completely destroyed. The grass house is gone. All the cars were totaled. [It] took hours for emergency [crews] to cut through all the trees to get to us. I had to pull my wife and daughter from the rubble of the collapsed center.”
Earles later recounted, “We then started another dance and the lights went out. They had been flickering all day, so we didn’t pay it much mind and we kept playing, an eerie backup light shown down on the drum alone.
“As we played our ears started popping, lightly at first then so bad that I looked at my brother Nish next to me and our faces changed. We knew exactly what was happening,” Earles reported. “We immediately got up and started running towards the smaller room with no windows.
“We heard a terrible noise as the building started to tear apart, and I felt a push as the walls of the building came tumbling down forcing us to the ground. My brother behind me. I fell on a small girl—comforted that I had my daughter—but when I saw her face I realized she wasn’t mine, so I gripped her and told her I have her and it is all going to be all right, as the walls in front of me disappeared, and I was halfway out of the building [with]the brunt of the tornado’s winds whipping and hitting me in the face with wood scraps, sand, and glass—protecting this little girl, worrying where mine was.”
After the funnel passed, Earles relayed, “All I could do was scream, ‘Where are my wife and child?!’ I finally found them pinned under two walls, and we managed to pull them out with help—all while it was pouring rain in our eyes. When we walked out everything was destroyed—upside down, crushed, and mangled, cars in trees, some crumpled like tin cans.”
An ambulance rushed Caddo/Delaware beadwork artist and painter Yonavea Hawkins and her husband Marvin Hawkins almost 60 miles away to a hospital in Tyler, Texas. Marvin was kept overnight for observation, and Yonavea remains hospitalized.
Yonavea Hawkins wrote, “Marvin has a bump on his head, but strained his shoulder trying to get the building off of me and chest pains.” She sustained three broken ribs and two deep gashes in her legs, which required stitches, and had 21 staples applied to her head injuries. She wrote that she is “thankful our injuries are not worse.”
Yancey Redcorn reported that the wall and ceiling of the visitor collapsed on his mother, Caddo/Potawatomi ceramic artist Jeri Redcorn and her sister Jennifer Wilson. They were treated at a hospital for their injuries, but they are stable and were released. “They have some bumps and bruises but are fine,” he wrote Saturday evening. “They are two tough Caddo ladies.”
Three people took shelter in the Caddo grass lodge, including Jeff Williams, president of the Friends of Caddo Mounds. Despite the lodge collapsing on them, they survived. In a previous storm on April 7, the grass lodge had stayed intact despite being pummeled with grapefruit-sized hail. The lodge, built with the assistance of Phil Cross (Caddo/Potawatomi) and Chad Nish Earles (Caddo), won the Paul E. Buchanan Vernacular Architecture Award in 2018.
Caddo Mounds State Historic Site will be closed until further notice. Donations to the reconstruction of Caddo Mounds can be made to the Caddo Mounds Texas State Historic Site GoFundMe campaign.
The exhibits at the Caddo Mounds visitor’s center were only reproduction of precontact Caddo ceramics and other artworks. Most of the original artifacts from Caddo Mounds are safely housed at the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas in Austin.
Nearby Franklin, Texas, was hit by a deadly class EF-3 tornado with winds of 140 MPH. In Angelina County, near Pollok, Texas, two children were killed when a tree collapsed on their car. One fatality was reported in Weches, Texas.
1. KTRE Digital Media Staff, “Efforts shift towards cleanup after deadly storms blow through East Texas,” KTRE 9 (April 14, 2019, updated April 14, 2019), web.