Texas Tech University

Grit From the Ground Up

November 22, 2023

Perryton’s town motto unites generations of residents and beyond as they work to rebuild from the tornado strike that damaged hundreds of buildings, homes and lives.

It's not that J Aston never left his hometown of Perryton, Texas.  

He ventured straight to Lubbock after high school to attend Texas Tech University. In fact, he was the 30th member of his paternal family to do so. 

He introduced himself to his future wife in geology class, earned an exercise and sports sciences degree in 2013 and embarked upon his career in Amarillo.

But there's a reason he hit the brakes and made a U-turn back to Perryton as soon as he found an open road:

The people.

“I wanted to be back home,” J recollects. “I needed to be part of this community again.”

His wife, Katie, was not as confident about living in Perryton, a town of about 8,200 people. A Georgetown native, she could not fathom the idea of driving to Kansas for a Walmart run.

“I felt like it was so far from everything,” she laughs at the memory. “J would say, ‘Just think – every time you get to go out of town, it's like a vacation. So, it makes it more fun.'” 

With faith in her husband, Katie began her small-town life with J on Oct. 1, 2014 – a homecoming date J remembers off the top of his head because of the overwhelming joy he felt returning to his birthplace. 

He grew up throwing the ball with friends in front yards (at the price of a few windows). Across his street, he played basketball on a hoop left up by a neighbor who repainted the backboard each year (even though he was an empty nester).

Better yet, Perryton is the place that provided J with the role models he desperately needed after he lost his father to an industrial accident in 1992. J was only 3 years old.

“There were many people who would really go out of their way to help me,” J says. “I'm forever grateful for people like that.” 

J's father, John, was highly active in the community. He had served as a city councilman since 1987. J's mother, Frances, was appointed to his seat after he passed away and served for nine years.

J's name is literally the letter J as a nod to John. In furthering their legacies, J chose to fill his parents' seat in 2017.

“It means a lot to me, coming from a place like this and having so much support,” J says. “It was something I wanted to do to give back.”

By this point in their journey, J and Katie were fully committed to their new home. He worked at Perryton National Bank, where he eventually earned the title of senior vice president. Katie became an escrow officer at Digital Abstract and Title.

They landed the role of parents in 2016 when they welcomed their daughter Audrey. Each year since, Katie has continually realized how unique it is to raise a child in a tight-knit community.

“Especially when she started school, I felt like I really appreciated it because it's nice knowing other parents and who she's around,” Katie says. “It makes you realize what a good place this is.”

This family of three leaves footprints all over Perryton: shopping at boutiques for gifts, dining in restaurants, visiting the local nail salon, going to the movies and running errands at local businesses.

“Going out of town is like vacation, but there are some weekends when it's just nice to be here and relax,” Katie said. “We love doing that.”

‘It happened so fast.' 

On weekdays, J and Katie head to work on Main Street and run errands around town while Audrey spends the day at school or with her babysitter.  

Such was their day June 15, a Thursday. It also was relatively normal that there was a threat of hail, given the likelihood of severe weather in the Texas Panhandle during early summer. Several similar storms had already hit Perryton in recent weeks.

“Some employees took precautions to take their vehicles certain places,” J says. “The hail threat was really what people were worried about.”

Other than that, it was business as usual – until around 4:20 p.m.

“We saw the clouds building over west of town,” he remembers. “The first thing I did was call my wife and say, ‘Hey, get Audrey and go home.' And then we started sending all the employees home so they could try to protect their property and stay safe.”

J remained at Perryton National Bank alongside the president and executive vice president. He took deposits and cashed checks as hailstones, some bigger than golf balls, pounded their building.

At one point, as the storm kept intensifying, the three developed a plan to take cover in the vault if needed. But J didn't realize the true danger they were in until a little after 5 p.m., when he noticed customers at the drive-up all gaping in the same direction.

It was then he received the tornado warning notification on his phone.

“Sure enough, there it was,” J says. “It happened so fast.”

An EF-3 tornado, with 140 mph windspeeds estimated by the National Weather Service, was tearing through the heart of Perryton.

J watched in disbelief as debris was sucked into the funnel.

“That's when I realized, ‘OK, we've got ourselves a problem here,'” J says. “Still, at that point, we didn't really know how bad it was. There was no power and some people didn't have cell service.”

By 5:17 p.m., the tornado had completed its devastating 6.39-mile-long, half-mile-wide trek. While it missed Perryton National Bank, J only had to drive about three blocks down Ash Street to discover that was a miracle.

“I saw the unimaginable,” J shutters. “It's something I can't even describe, really.”

The word he finally landed on was “chaos.”

Emergency vehicles parked in the middle of the road cast alternating red and blue illumination on the worst destruction J had ever seen.

“It was unbelievable,” J says. “I mean, you pull up and all you see is some steel, timber and whatever else sticking out of the ground with leaves everywhere.”

Windows shattered. Businesses crumbled. Houses reduced to foundations. People scrambling.

Still in shock, J drove past Katie's office and found it fine – but the building next door was gone. He had to get home, fast.

“I have never had to worry like that,” he says with a shake of his head. “My wife had no cell phone service. I had no idea if she and my daughter were OK.”

The Aston home is on the outskirts of Perryton, where it remained relatively quiet. Katie and Audrey were in the laundry room with their dog surrounded by couch cushions and pillows when the electricity went out.

When J arrived, he could not enter through the garage door as usual because of the power outage. He banged on the door, which startled Katie.

“When I opened it, he said, ‘A huge tornado just went through town,'” Katie recalls, “and he said, ‘I think people are probably dead.'”

People – the draw J always had to Perryton – turned into the reason he changed his clothes and rushed from the comfort of his home back into complete and utter disaster.

‘I don't know that anybody will ever be OK after this.' 

J found a haunting scene at the mobile home park at 400 N. Indiana St., not even two miles away from the bank. Homes he could still envision were merely ghosts. Others were stripped to the bones.

“The tornado came straight down there,” he says. “The homes are two-thirds gone.”

A chilling problem soon became clear: not everyone had time to make it to shelter. By the time most received the tornado warning, it had already struck.

Just as J experienced, other families found out about the tornado only by looking out the window. Through their panic, they were forced to make a last-minute decision in a life-threatening situation.

Several of them rushed to their cars, but they were too late for a getaway. As debris pummeled the metal and shattered the glass, they crouched on the floorboards and shielded their children beneath them. One father said he prayed the car would stay grounded.

Ana Ramirez visits the home she once lived in next door to her parents. “My little one, she's like, ‘My toys! Oh, no, my toys!'” Ramirez says. “I told her, ‘Baby girl, that don't matter. What matters is that everybody's fine.”

Nearly everyone in this neighborhood seemed to have a similar story.

Despite significant damage to the Perryton Fire Department and EMS station, search-and-rescue teams checked homes for any signs of life and left notice of their efforts through large orange Xs spraypainted onto exterior walls – a signal to rush inside the next ruinate home.

As they found, not everyone escaped unscathed. More than 100 people were injured and three members of the Perryton community lost their lives: 11-year-old Matthew Ramirez was only a few years older than Audrey. Cindy Bransgrove, 67, was volunteering at the food bank. J had just hugged 66-year-old Rebecca Randall, better known as Becky, at their Lions Club meeting two days prior.

“It's heartbreaking,” he says. “You want to say it's going to be all right, but I don't know that anybody will ever be OK after this.”

‘The sheer destruction was unbelievable.' 

Perryton learned the hard way how a tornado rips with no regard for livelihood, much less sentimental and monetary value. In several cases, it knocked homes built from the ground up over the course of decades right back to the ground.

Other reminders of the brutal force were splintered powerlines, two-by-fours and rods speared into buildings, metal tangled in tree branches and conformed to trunks, with washing machines and other appliances tossed like dice.

More startling, toppled nursery walls sandwiched a still-standing crib.

“You don't understand what it looks like for a tornado to go through an area like that until you see it,” J says. “The sheer destruction was unbelievable.”

Once J learned nearly 100 businesses and at least 200 homes were impacted, his mind became consumed with thoughts of his friends and former coworkers who were affected.

These victims emerged from shelter to the agonizing task of sorting through a lifetime of possessions – shoes, toys, antiques, home décor and so much more – strewn into careless piles onto lawns and beyond. Makeshift reunions consisted of family members roaming about, numb and not sure where to begin.

Several residents couldn't physically or emotionally stand to dig through the mess just then, much less remain at the scene.

“They don't have anything,” J says. “Their clothes are strung out all over the place along with all their belongings. You want to say you know what they're going through, but nobody really does until you're one of those people.”

And cleanup efforts did not wait for a good night's rest to absorb the shock.

Many homes missing their exteriors stood like dollhouses, each room exposed. Amid the ruins, one stoic woman returned her belongings to their rightful spot on a living room shelf.

At points during the search for anything salvageable, those affected had to take a step back to wipe away sweat and tears. If items somehow survived the impact, they then had to withstand rain and mud.

Many beloved books and family pictures didn't make the cut. Stuffed animals lay nameless, soiled and soggy.

This sense of loss became overwhelming in a place where even lifelong residents struggled to gather their bearings with all the familiar landmarks missing – or in a red-and-white communication tower's case, bent completely in half.

Almost as jarring as the tornado's demolition was the stark contrast of the pristine: a spilled jar of sparkling glitter, a crimson plastic heart and children's artwork still proudly taped to a fallen wall. Reminders of happier times.

A more effective relief from the tension came from the residents who gathered what little they had to deliver food and drinks around the neighborhood. Joining this support network were gloved strangers – volunteers who ventured into Perryton from across Texas – ready to work.

“The story, to me, really isn't the tornado; it's the help we've gotten,” J says. “It's incredible to know there are people like that willing to give up their plans for several days to help us out.”

A kitten is rescued from the rubble.

Some of the visitors even came from the Texas and U.S. Capitols. Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz among others hosted a news conference from Perryton on June 17, one day after Abbott issued a disaster declaration for Ochiltree County.

Abbott has seen the outcome of many tornados over the years, but none as relentless as the one that struck Perryton. He explained how the disaster declaration would streamline the state's ability to provide resources for local officials to recover and rebuild.

J could only wish all the affected businesses would return, but he acknowledged the harsh reality that many would not. Unfortunately, he says this will affect not just Perryton, but the smaller communities 45 miles in each direction that rely on its economy.

“It's sad,” J says. “A lot of people put blood, sweat and tears into those businesses and you feel for them. Hopefully people are prepared to help these business owners get back to whatever their normal will be from here on.”

It seemed the new normal for many Perryton citizens post-tornado was sleeping in churches, taking showers in trailers, and eating meals at the high school.

Darlena Hardy takes a much-needed moment from sorting through her mother's possessions. But she found strength in the selflessness of volunteers – enough to pay it forward. “I'm here if you need me,” she says. “Whether it's to cry or talk, yell or scream. We can all just be together.

Overwhelmed with the need to provide more relief, J turned to the other community he has been a part of since childhood: Texas Tech.

“I posted on a Texas Tech Facebook forum, ‘Hey, look, Perryton, Texas needs prayers,'” J says, “and the outpouring of support from Red Raider Nation was just incredible.”

He received dozens of comments and messages asking, “How can we help? What can we send there? What can we do?”

That response gave Katie some much-needed encouragement.

“If you look around, you can tell what people are good at,” she motions near Main Street. “There are people serving food. There are people sorting clothes. There are people repairing buildings and cleaning up. You have to use all that talent in a time like this.

“It takes many different people, and I feel like that's Texas Tech. You have graduates who own all kinds of businesses and have all kinds of careers and skills – all the things it's going to take to build Perryton back up, because one person can't do it all. It's a group effort.”

Early examples of this teamwork included alumni hauling heavy equipment like skid steers, dump trailers and excavators to help clear roadways.

J, along with his family of Red Raiders, knew that was just the beginning.

“The people of Texas Tech are just like we are,” J explains, “and when the going gets tough, the tough get going. They're the workers that say, ‘We're going to put our money where our mouth is, and we're going to go out and get something done.'”

‘I'm a go-getter. I wanted to go.' 

Tommy Butler fits that mold.

He was one of many Red Raiders who felt a call to action once he learned the gut-wrenching news of the Perryton tornado.

“People were texting me, ‘Hey, are you good? Is your family good? We heard a tornado went by Perryton,'” Tommy says. “I didn't really think anything of it.”

Tommy, a second-year student at the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine, grew up in Perryton and graduated from high school there in 2019. All he had to do was login to social media to confirm the worst.

“I saw the pictures and I was like, ‘Oh, no,'” he says. “I texted my parents, ‘Are y'all OK? Is everybody good?'”

His parents, who live south of town, were shaken, but fine.

Tommy scrolled and scrolled through his Facebook feed, his own search of sorts, to check on his friends.

That is how he discovered Becky, a lifelong Perryton resident, was hosting a garage sale at her Perryton Printing business on Ash Street around the time the tornado touched down.

She had posted a photo of the building exterior earlier that day with the caption:  
“TODAY!!!! It starts today at 5:00!! Bargains galore, EVERYTHING is $1.00!! Clothes, luggage, kitchen items, dishes, seasonal decorations, Knick knacks, etc. Come see us, across the street from City Hall!”

Mutual friends asked if Becky was OK and Tommy checked the comments on her post over and over until it was announced she had passed away.

“That was heartbreaking,” Tommy says. “She was incredibly impactful to me and the community.”

Tommy will never forget how much Becky encouraged him as a young entrepreneur.

“I am a beekeeper and I started my own bee business, R&T Cream, about five years ago,” Tommy says. “She was incredibly supportive of that and helped me spread the word.”

Just three years ago, Becky bought 10 jars of his honey at one time. Moved by her influence on his life and many others, Tommy began to ask himself, “What would she do in a situation like this? What would be her first steps in supporting the community, which was always what she was about?”

Tommy fought the urge to drive to Perryton that night.

“I'm a go-getter,” Tommy says. “I wanted to go. But after talking to my friends, I knew I'd just be in the way.”

After struggling to sleep, Tommy awoke with a mission.

He approached the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at Amarillo and the School of Veterinary Medicine about teaming up to host a Perryton Relief Food Drive. To his delight, they both backed his endeavor.

By 11 a.m. Friday, Tommy had the drive set up and a flyer designed.

“My desk might not always be the most organized,” Tommy jokes, “but I can organize an event and get it done quickly.”

From June 16-23, he gathered nonperishable food, bottled water, bathroom supplies, clothes, baby items and more.

Even though his hometown is 115 miles away, Tommy saw citizens from Amarillo and surrounding towns come forward with generosity as they successfully filled about 15 40-gallon totes full of necessities.

“Between churches and the two schools, people – even college students – were like, ‘I don't have much to give, but here you go,'” Tommy says. “Seeing the community come together like that was amazing.”

But Tommy didn't stop there.

Mutt Hutt Rescue, a nonprofit caring for dozens of pets impacted by the tornado, was directed to Tommy with their request for much-needed items such as food/water bowls and dog food.

Tommy heard stories of how the organization tackled the grueling job of searching the rubble for hurt, lost and, worst case, killed, animals to help them accordingly.

As a fellow animal lover, he felt grateful for their efforts.

“The next morning, I met with the dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine,” Tommy says. “We ended up donating more than 1,600 pounds of dog food and 48 bowls.”

Still, Tommy wanted to do more, and the opportunity to do so landed in the email inbox he created for the Perryton Relief Food Drive.

It was a request of how to help Perryton from the Texas Rangers, who Tommy believed was the law enforcement agency.

To his surprise, it was actually the Major League Baseball team. More specifically, Emily Jones McCoy, who graduated from Texas Tech in 1998 with a bachelor of arts degree in broadcast journalism and later became a sports reporter for the Texas Rangers Baseball Club.

“Whenever I had that realization, I kind of teared up a little bit,” Tommy admits.

The Texas Rangers ended up donating a $5,000 check with the potential of more to come.

“I was just shocked,” Tommy says. “Shocked that they noticed a little-bitty town up north and thankful they wanted to help.”

The responsiveness of his university and beyond reminded Tommy of the saying, “If you build it, they will come.”

Little did he know just how many had come before him. By the time Tommy made his first delivery of goods June 20, a large dance hall in Perryton called Rodeo Nights was brimming with donations.

“There were hundreds, if not thousands of cases of water and clothes everywhere for people to come get, and a full kitchen essentially back there ready to serve,” Tommy recalls in amazement. “I've seen all sorts of people come to help little ol' Perryton.”

The scene reiterated why Tommy accepted the School of Veterinary Medicine's commitment to serve rural areas.

“All these people come together,” he says. “They could be out working right now making money, but rather, they are volunteering their time to help the community.

“That's why I love rural communities. You see people struggling, you help them out.”

‘Grit is here, and it's here to stay.' 

J met Tommy at Rodeo Nights and helped him unload his donations.

These men come from different generations, but they have what might be considered a small-world connection. Tommy's mom used to work with J at the bank. J even awarded Tommy a scholarship a few years ago that helped him obtain his prerequisite courses.

They also share a common trait they credit to an upbringing in Perryton and an education earned at Texas Tech.

“Grit has been instilled in me from a young age,” Tommy says, “and clearly from everything that's happened in Perryton, grit is here and it's here to stay.

The men did not go their separate ways once the totes were emptied. Instead, they ventured to face the harsh new reality of Main Street.

Their walks down memory lane took them in two directions: Tommy visited the Radio Shack he frequented as a teenager, reduced to collapsed bricks.

It was one thing to know about the damage, but entirely more emotional to process the sight from behind yellow caution tape.

“Grit means we're going to get through this,” Tommy reminds himself. “We're going to be stronger for it. We're going to live.”

J's path merged with Katie and Audrey's as they took a familiar route to the Ellis Theater, its iconic neon sign illegible.

J's mind was not only consumed with the movie nights they once shared there, but his obligation to regain order as a city councilman. With the City Hall destroyed, he and other officials must move from building to building on top of this chore.

Weeks after the tornado, their top priority remained gas restoration.

“They said we might have no natural gas for six weeks,” J says. “That's a lot of cold showers.”

He feels that sting and so much more as he searches for ways to spark a light at the end of the tunnel. He saw a flicker by the end of June, once state agencies completed their aid with the Texas Department of Transportation disposing of about 1,700 dump truck loads of debris.

“They asked everybody to push all of their stuff to the curb and not block anything,” J says, “and then those crews shut down the streets and would pick up the piles and take them to the landfill.”

Pushing toward a brighter future, united through trauma and hardship, their landscape forever changed, J is amazed at how Perryton has leaned onto the solid foundation of their town motto: Better Together.

And it's not just J who has noticed. The Texas All-Hazard Incident Management Team sent an email that J said expressed their appreciation for the Perryton community wrapping their arms around their crew, making them feel like family.

“That's really how it has been,” J says, a note of pride in his voice. “And I told them we want to see them come back up here when we're not in a situation like this.”

That's a message J will continue to spread moving forward. Now that a natural disaster has pinned Perryton onto the national map, he hopes supporters will visit and provide what J has discovered victims need the most: the cash that disappeared from the nooks and crannies of their homes and mattresses. Funds that will help relieve the loss of cars and homes, many of which were paid off, with no insurance checks on the way.

“Really and truly, in my opinion, the biggest thing anybody could do is get money in the hands of people here,” he says, “because then they can go get the stuff they really need. That help is something that will always be remembered.”

J certainly will never forget the way his heart smiled when a citizen approached him with a proposal to donate proceeds from her lemonade stand to victims and even invite them to take shelter in her home.

That kindness shone from his 7-year-old, Audrey, like a sunrise on a nightmare – a tender moment that confirmed what J's parents knew, and what he suspected all along.

“I still think Perryton is the best place to raise a kid,” he says. “It's going to be different, but this isn't going to define us.”

J will continuously rally that spirit in the difficult months ahead to ensure Perryton stays on the horizon for the next generations of his Red Raider lineage, and many others, searching for the perfect place to call home.

“We're going to be back, and we're going to be better,” J assures. “It's going to be an amazing comeback story.”

Life-Saving Measures 

Six days after the Perryton tornado, on the evening of June 21, another EF-3 tornado struck Matador, Texas, a town 90 miles northeast of Lubbock with a population of about 600 people. Tragically, four people died.

The next day, two engineers with the Texas Tech National Wind Institute surveyed the aftermath. They hope to further the institute's ongoing research that has already saved lives and has the potential to save many more.

Jesus Morales and Eliana Hernandez deliver food in their neighborhood the day after they took cover in a vehicle from the tornado. “I was praying and praying and praying,” Morales said. “I told my wife to grab the kids and cover them. Shield them, because everything was hitting the car. I thought the car was going to go flying with us inside.”
This vehicle sheltered an entire family during the tornado.
Tammie and Ren Hensley discuss next steps for their business, Renco Tool Company, after losing their shop roof. A Perryton native, Tammie acknowledged some of the businesses she frequented may not recover. “They've lost their office spaces, they've lost everything they built,” she says. “It's devastating.”

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