When Andrew Shirey got to Palo Duro Canyon on Friday afternoon, he knew there was the possibility of high winds and severe weather throughout the weekend.
But what occurred Saturday afternoon was not something he expected to happen during the first few days of his Spring Break.
The Amarillo office of the National Weather Service is estimating that six tornadoes made their way throughout the Texas Panhandle Saturday, affecting southern Randall County, including Happy and Palo Duro Canyon, as well as other Panhandle towns including Claude and Clarendon.
Tornado’s effect on Randall County/Texas Panhandle
According to NWS Amarillo, one large tornado hit the entranceway of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, affecting the nearby Palo Duro Canyon Zip Line Adventure Park.
Leann Overstreet, the public information officer for the Randall County Sheriff’s Office, said 16 hikers weathered the storm in the state park while 42 were evacuated out of the park as the storm was approaching.
Initially, five hikers were reported as missing after the storm, four of which were found shortly afterward. The fifth hiker was located later Saturday after a search. No injuries or fatalities related to the storm had been reported to the Globe-News as of Sunday afternoon.
Stephen Bieda, the science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Amarillo, said two crews of officials were out Sunday surveying the damage caused by the tornadoes, with one in southern Randall County in coordination with the county’s emergency management team, and the other in the Clarendon area.
“Right now, we are investigating that tornado and just trying to find all the structures that were impacted as a result of that tornado as it moved towards Palo Duro Canyon,” he said. “We have found damaged structures along the way, ranging from downed power lines, damage to various buildings.”
Bieda said there was also damage to RV’s at the nearby adventure park as well as at the entrance center of the state park. According to previous reports, Overstreet said Saturday evening the water has been shut off in Palo Duro Canyon and they are not letting anyone on the property.
Overstreet also detailed some of the other damage which occurred at the park.
“The tower that housed the control for the water has been completely turned over. The ticket booth has been destroyed. Signs, gates, that sort of thing,” she said. “A couple of towers, our radio towers, have suffered some damage, not a lot.”
In other parts of Randall County, a few residences were damaged because of the storm along with downed power lines across the county. No injuries were reported in either of those cases.
Andrew Shirey’s Experience
While the storm hit Palo Duro Canyon, Shirey said he was down in the park, getting news updates via phone from his father about the path of the tornado. As an Eagle Scout, Shirey used some of the skills he learned in the Boy Scouts of America organization through this situation.
“I drove to the very back of the canyon because yesterday, when it had rained, it didn’t rain at all in the back so I figured it would be the safest place to probably go,” he said. “Personally, I felt perfectly safe in the park because I knew the area somewhat well because I had been here in the past. I was also in the Boy Scouts so I kind of knew what to look for and where to seek shelter, if needed. I was calm during all of it, except pretty much when the (half-dollar-sized) hail started coming down.”
Shirey was in communication with his parents during the majority of the severe weather incident. Denise Shirey, Andrew’s mom who called herself a “worrisome mother,” said she did not expect any of this to happen.
“My husband was watching the weather on his laptop and came out and told me about the tornadoes and that there was one over Palo Duro Canyon, where Andrew was, and that he had told him to take shelter,” he said. “We thought he would go to a cave, so of course I was worried and concerned. I sent him a quick text to let me know when he was safe. Oh gosh, I think it was about five minutes and he had called me to tell me he was sitting outside of a restroom in his car and if he needed to, he could go in there for shelter.”
Those five minutes were excruciating for Denise, with her family being as tight as it is.
“Obviously, I had tears falling. Just to know that he is 10 hours away … It was a little nerve wracking,” she said. “It was like five minutes of just fear, not knowing (where he is), if he’s safe. Just the unknown. We just prayed.”
During the storm, Andrew only faced the rain and hail while in the park, with the closest tornado touching down right outside the park. But his campground at the Palo Duro Canyon Zip Line Adventure Park was affected.
“By some miracle, my tent is one of the only things that is actually left,” he said. “As soon as I came in, the park host was at the very front, only allowing people with reservations or the police in. Whenever I pulled up and she told me that, I just was beside myself. I couldn’t believe my small little tent was perfectly fine out here where there were six RV’s that were either totaled, or overturned and damaged.”
Denise Shirey said her own mother died a year ago in January. The fact that Andrew was safe through this incident, and that his tent was intact, proved something to her.
“I know my mom was looking out for him during all of this,” she said.
Even after what he went through at Palo Duro Canyon, Andrew Shirey said he was still planning on travelling to Big Bend National Park starting Sunday, eventually making his way home to Houston later in Spring Break.
Denise Shirey said it is going to mean a lot to her once Andrew is home later this week.
“He will be definitely getting lots of hugs that day,” she said.
According to a news release issued Sunday from the Randall County Sheriff’s Office, Palo Duro Canyon State Park officials reported the park’s approximately 100 camping sites were all rented for the weekend. A number of park visitors remained there during the storm, sheltering in many of the park’s stone structures including the visitor’s center and bathroom facilities. Most of the damage is limited to the canyon’s rim, with no damage reported by registered campers at the bottom of the canyon.
The release states Palo Duro Zip Line owners reported approximately 30 families and individuals with reservations at their facility on Saturday: “Randall County Sheriff deputies and Randall County Fire officials canvassed the area into the night. Thirteen families and individuals remained on site after the storm, some with completely destroyed camper trailers or RVs, and those who were unable to remain at the campground had made alternative lodging plans for the night. Randall County deputies spoke with all but three or four of the families and individuals who had reservations and thoroughly searched the damaged camper trailers/RVs which remained at the campground without an owner present.”
One residence in Sunday Canyon and one residence on south Trade Winds Road suffered significant damage, according to the release, but both families at those homes were able to find safe shelter.
“Although there is substantial property damage in the area, we are incredibly blessed that no one was injured or killed in this storm,” said Randall County Sheriff Christopher Forbis.
After Saturday’s incident, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson made a statement on her public Facebook page, stating that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reached out to her regarding the tornadoes in the Texas Panhandle.
“Governor Greg Abbott called me tonight to check on Amarillo and the surrounding areas after our severe storms today. I am grateful that we had no loss of life, and I pray for all our neighbors who were affected,” she wrote in the post. “I am also grateful for all our first responders who were out in dangerous weather helping to protect us. We appreciate their service and all the help we get from the Governor and State agencies anytime we face a crisis.”
Bieda, with the Amarillo office of the National Weather Service, said crews will continue gathering data over the next few days. After that gathering, the National Weather Service will determine an official rating on the tornadoes, an official number of how many there were throughout the Texas Panhandle as well as the approximate times of when and where the tornadoes started and ended.
Information from the National Weather Service will be released on its website, at https://www.weather.gov/ama/, or on their social media platforms.
by David Gay (2021, Mar 14) Amarillo Globe-News