By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
Ron Carr had been in Friona for a month in 1995 and was still feeling the place out when he accepted a job as a reporter at the city’s newspaper.
“I asked him if anything exciting happened around Friona,” Carr said of his conversation with then-owner Bill Ellis. “He said, ‘No, not really.’”
His boss was wrong. Three days before Carr was scheduled to start work, a tornado slammed in the farming community 35 miles northeast of Clovis on June 3.
A since-disbanded Oklahoma University data collection project estimated the tornado was an F4 on the Fujita scale (200-267 mph).
Ellis, who in retirement occasionally thumbs through a copy of the special tornado edition the Friona Star printed the following week, said a handful of houses and 23 businesses were damaged, causing approximately $25 million in damage.
“After we had surveyed the damage, it didn’t take much to realize we had a pretty fair amount,” Ellis said. By the estimates of Ellis and Carr, who bought the Star from Ellis nearly four years ago, the special edition sold nearly 3,000 copies.
That’s much more than the estimated circulation of 1,800 for the weekly paper that covered all the news it could find.
“‘I said (to Carr), it’s kind of hard to find a headline some weeks,” Ellis said.
In his research, Ellis said he had found five tornadoes had hit Friona before 1995. Including the 1995 tornado, four hit on a Friday, Ellis said.
Some homes south of Friona took extensive damage, Carr said, but the most notable damage was done to the town’s Hi-Pro Feeds plant.
Noel White, general manager at the plant, was a sales manager at the time. He said his home took a fair amount of damage to windows, siding and the roof, but nothing like what happened to the plant.
He visited the plant at 11 p.m., nearly four hours after the tornado first touched down in Friona. Nobody on the night shift was hurt seriously, White said, but the business took a severe beating.
“Everything was destroyed,” White said. “We had two plants. The east one was gone, it had fallen down. The office was down, the warehouse was gone, the animal health building was gone. By gone, I don’t mean it had all blown away. The tornado just picked it up and dropped it.”
There were many things to worry about, but his job was never one of them. That was a big deal to Hi-Pro workers, since the plant was the third-biggest employer in the city.
“Ownership made the decision by either Saturday afternoon or Sunday to rebuild,” White said. “The goal in that was to keep all of our people employed. We became ventilation people and construction (workers).”
Hi-Pro had plenty of rebuilding costs, but White said the people up top were prepared and had business interruption insurance. Hi-Pro was back in limited production within a month and outsourced some manufacturing.
The business returned to full production June 1, 1996, 364 days after disaster first struck.
As Friona recovered, the stories gained momentum. Ellis said one of his favorite stories is about how a neighbor couple pulled their baby out of a stroller in the living room before the tornado struck. When they returned home, the house took little damage — save a cinder block that fell through the roof and landed in the baby stroller.
Sometimes there was a blur between what is fact and what is legend. Though they admit how ridiculous the notion is, Ellis and Carr said some residents believe the tornado didn’t hit the downtown area because it bounced off a grain elevator at Friona Wheat Growers. Postcards have described it as the longest country elevator in the world.
An ABC news crew came to talk to Friona residents, and one resident described being in his truck and seeing a cow fly by. The story never aired — Ellis said an international plane crash bumped the story — but many are certain it was inspiration for a similar scene in the “Twister” film released a year later.
“I can’t help but believe that’s where they got the idea,” Ellis said.
It may or may not have changed a few seconds of film, but the tornado certainly changed some lives in west Texas. White said he’s more family-oriented, and prayed for the people in Clovis and Logan to recover and have the same help — he said the American Red Cross was in Friona an hour after the tornado.