Community Makes Us Stronger When We Need it the Most
Category: Building Community
Written By: Chris Libby
Date: September 13, 2023
On June 15, 2023, a devastating tornado ravaged through Perryton, Texas, a town of roughly 8,200 people in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle located just a few miles from the Oklahoma border. In a little more than 10 minutes, the EF3 tornado with 140 MPH force winds and a swath a half-mile wide decimated homes and businesses. More than a hundred people were injured and three people lost their lives.
A preceding storm knocked out most of the power to the town, including the warning siren system. Many never had time to find safety. That day, life in Perryton changed forever. But in times of crisis, community is often the one thing that binds us together to make sure we make it through to the other side of adversity.
Too Close to Home
Parkhill has a unique connection to places like Perryton. Many of our employees were raised and are now raising their own families in these small towns. Our projects are designed to help these communities thrive.
Ryan Wilkens, AIA, is a Senior Associate with Parkhill and Perryton is his hometown. It is a place where many of his friends and family live, including his parents. After the news hit, Ryan’s first order of business was to check on his family. The aftermath of the storm had severely hampered communications, but eventually Ryan touched base. The feelings of relief quickly turned into a sense of urgency to get home and help.
“When you live in a community of that size, you really have no choice but to be a part of it. You can't sit on the sidelines” he said. “There's a responsibility to be an active part and to pull your weight.”
Perryton is a place full of memories and where Ryan was taught the real value of a strong community. He credits the town and the people in it for shaping him into the person he has become and instilling ideals of trust, respect, and hard work. He says this area of Texas is and has always been a place of resilience.
Shortly after the tornado hit, people were understandably distraught. But instead of letting despair and helplessness take over, the town pulled together. They made sure people were fed and housed, and then everyone got to work with the cleanup and recovery.
“It was remarkable how many people were already in the mindset of ‘We're going to be better off for this and we're going to be stronger,’” Ryan said. “Folks that just lost family members and friends, or their businesses and homes, and they still have this attitude of perseverance.”
“When you live in a community of that size, you really have no choice but to be a part of it. You can't sit on the sidelines. There's a responsibility to be an active part and to pull your weight.”—Ryan Wilkens, AIA
Shortly after the news of the tornado started to spread throughout the rest of the state, a “Call to Action” was sent out to the local architectural and engineering community from the Texas Society of Architects (TxA), a professional architectural organization. This spurred action from members of Parkhill to volunteer their time, skills, and effort to help our communities in need.
Mike Moss, AIA, Parkhill’s Executive Vice President of Operations, quickly mobilized a team of volunteers to head to Perryton to offer their services. No one knew what to expect or what they were getting into once they arrived in Perryton, they just knew people needed help.
Mike said that witnessing the magnitude and randomness of the destruction was truly an eye-opening experience. “When you see it firsthand it brings everything to a different level when you are right in the middle of it.”
Once on scene, the team of volunteers paired off into smaller groups and canvassed the area with other agencies and volunteers and walked blocks—home by home and business by business—to assess the damage on more than 440 structures to determined what was safe or salvageable and what needed to be replaced.
One of those volunteers was Parkhill architect Nichole Carroway, AIA. Growing up in the Panhandle, she was all too familiar with Texas tornados. The damage from this storm, though, was something she had never witnessed before. “The ride into town seemed normal, but once we got close to the courthouse and downtown, we could really see the line of damage,” she said. “It was definitely extreme and heartbreaking.”
As the rebuild process moves forward, Parkhill will continue offering assistance to Perryton through its Building Community Investment program by providing pro bono services. While much more work will need to be done in the coming months and even years, this was an important first step.
It will be a long and painful process, but in the face of real adversity, Perryton vows to bounce back even stronger.
“We are up here in a little box surrounded by other states, far from the big cities of Texas, so it’s all about helping hands up here,” Nichole said. “That really aligns with our Building Community mission (at Parkhill). We heard a call to help and went immediately not knowing what we were helping with, which was outstanding. And I know we will continue to do that.”
This isn’t the first time this town has needed to adapt to secure its future. In 1920, a railroad was built in between two existing towns: Ochiltree, Texas and Gray, Oklahoma. The tracks were laid within equal distance of each. Understanding the economics of what a railroad can bring, the towns picked up and moved their buildings and homes closer to the railroad. Ochiltree and Gray combined to what is now called Perryton, Texas—a town on the move.
Finding Hope in Humanity
Since the storm, the outpouring of support and volunteers has been overwhelming. Ryan says people from all over the country have been sojourning to Perryton to offer their service. One gentleman heard the news of the tornado all the way in Hobbs, New Mexico. He loaded his Skid Steer Loader onto his gooseneck trailer and headed to Perryton the morning after the tornado with no other plan than to just help people. After a few days, the gentleman needed to get back home, but not before offering his equipment for people in Perryton, whom he’d never previously met, to continue to use during the cleanup efforts.
“There's so much good in people in this country and unfortunately, it takes events like this for people to see the goodness that comes out of it,” Ryan said. “I almost feel guilty for enjoying the experience because it does so much to restore your faith in people and to see the goodness in their hearts.”
The physical places may be gone, but the memories of sitting along the main street to watch parades, the family dinners in town, or visits to the bank where Ryan’s grandmother worked for 40 years, will never be gone with the wind. Life in Perryton has changed, but it will be stronger for it. Afterall, it is a town on the move.
Here’s How to Help
As the rebuild continues, supplies will be in high demand. If you want to help the residents of Perryton, please visit these organizations:
Parkhill’s team of volunteers meet on site to assess the damage left from a deadly tornado that swept through Perryton, Texas on June 15, 2023. Pictured left to right: Nichole Carroway, AIA; Paul Hare, AIA; Mike Westbrook, PE; Mike Moss, AIA; and Melissa Walker, AIA.
In just over ten minutes, the EF3 tornado with 140 MPH force winds and a swath a half-mile wide decimated homes, and businesses.
Pictured are the historic Hotel Perryton next to the Ellis Theatre. Many businesses along the downtown square have been lost or forced to relocate due to the damage.