Matador tornado challenges continue 1 year later as community rebuilds

Pat Smith sits in front of the old Billie Dean's Cafe mural in his updated diner a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.
Pat Smith sits in front of the old Billie Dean's Cafe mural in his updated diner a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.

MATADOR — Driving into Matador on U.S. Highway 62 a year ago, visitors would have been greeted with the sights of twisted metal, foundations of homes with their contents scattered for miles and emergency vehicles lining both sides of streets — evidence of a tornado.

A year later, newly built businesses and overgrown vegetation on foundations hide the scars of the deadly tornado that ripped through the community on June 21, 2023. Still recovering from that trauma, the town has a new mayor, a newly built dinner, and a new vision leading them into the next chapter of the city's history.

June 21, 2023: EF3 tornado in Matador kills four, causes damages

On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 21, 2023, a supercell thunderstorm was developing, southeastward, according to the Lubbock National Weather Service.

The storm ultimately produced five tornadoes, with one hitting the community of Matador at 7:50 p.m. — a town of about 570 people 70 miles northeast of Lubbock.

A Matador citizen told the A-J in 2023 that they had little to no warning about the tornado, and the mayor at that time, Pat Smith, echoed the same thoughts after he took shelter in his diner with two of his waitresses.

The tornado hit his diner, Billie Dean's Restaurant, in the western part of town. Smith said it felt like the longest 20 seconds of his life.

Dig Deeper An 'unprecedented tornado': Violent storm leaves 4 dead in Matador, damage across Texas Rolling Plains

NWS reported that the tornado was a third of a mile wide, with peak wind gusts between 145 to 165 mph. This resulted in an EF3 rating.

The damage was extensive, with several gas stations hit, one of the city's iconic restaurant/motel badly damaged, a Dollar General leveled and one of the city's two transformers destroyed.

The tornado left 15 people injured and four dead, including:

  • Jo Etta Bumgardner, 85, of Matador.

  • Randell (Randy) Rolin, 59, of Purcell, Oklahoma.

  • Victor Valenzuela Jr., 43, of Austin.

  • Troy Hernandez, 23, of San Angelo .

Dig Deeper: Texas officials ID 4 victims of Matador tornado, provide updates on recovery

Though hurting, the West Texas spirit and grit brought the community together to rebuild in the days following the storm. A year later, that same spirit continues in Matador.

Iconic Billie Dean's restaurant in Matador reopens, motel plans in progress

Smith, owner of Billie Dean's Restaurant and Motel, lost both businesses after the night of the tornado but told the A-J that he was "determined to rebuild."

One year later, on the anniversary of the tornado, Smith reopened Billie Dean's Restaurant — 1224 Bailey Ave, Matador — literally bigger and better than before.

"The building is a third larger," Smith said. "Before, it was about 2,000 square feet, and now it's at 3,250 square feet."

The building replaced the old brick-and-mortar Smith's father bought in 1964, when the family moved into town and opened the restaurant. Though new, this restaurant means just as much to Smith as the last building.

"We started getting plans and my nephew actually done us a blueprint of the building — he's an engineer," Smith said.

Pat Smith uses the new register for Billie Dean's Cafe a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.
Pat Smith uses the new register for Billie Dean's Cafe a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.

Once the plans were drawn, it was time to get to work. Smith said he and his son-in-law built 80% of the building, having only contracted out the foundation pouring, windows, central heating and air and the insulation.

During this time, Smith received $50,000 in donations to help him rebuild and to help him get by after losing his livelihood. But people also gave their patience and skills to help him rebuild.

Smith's friend, Bruce Wynn, an independent contractor, traveled to Matador to help install the building's sheetrock.

"He'd drive back and forth from Lubbock," Smith said. "He'd come down once or twice a week. He'd come to work and get here seven o'clock in the evening (and) work 'til four or five in the morning."

Now with a brand new building, Smith said in an interview this week he was ready for the grand opening on June 21 — the anniversary of the tornado — with doors opening at 7 a.m.

A photo of the Billie Dean's Cafe construction is seen a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.
A photo of the Billie Dean's Cafe construction is seen a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.

And yes, the famous Saturday Night in Matador mural, along with other remnants from the former restaurant can be seen on display throughout the restaurant. As for the motel, Smith's has plans in the work to bring it back in a modern way.

After losing so much, Smith also had the duties of the Matador mayor, leading a town through the disaster.

That disaster destroyed a major portion of the city's electricity grid. The outpouring of community support was so high that, as previously reported, it forced the city to ask the public to stop sending water and food because the city already had enough supplies. Officials were concerned extra supplies would go bad before they could be used.

Through it all, Smith said it became a lot to manage.

"It was really more challenging than I could handle," Smith said. "I didn't sign back up for mayor."

New Matador mayor plans for future while addressing ongoing community impact

The Matador water tower is seen a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.
The Matador water tower is seen a year after the Matador tornado, Tuesday, June 16, 2024, in Matador, Texas.

In May 2024, the citizens went to the ballot box to vote between two mayoral candidates. Gerald "Fuzzy" Conner received 81% of the votes and was installed as the new mayor of Matador.

Conner said the tornado was one of the reasons he ran for mayor.

"A tornado is devastating, and a lot of times people sit back and reflect, and that was kind of one of my things is I'm a small business owner, and I thought I had a lot to offer for the community, and I thought that's a good reason to run," Conner said. "I just want to see it grow and prosper."

Conner said he moved to Matador two years after seeing his daughter get married on a ranch there. On the night of the tornado, Conner said he remembers were he was on the night of the tornado.

"I take a vacation once every five years, we got to the Bahamas the night the tornado hit and turned around and came home the next day," Conner said.

Billie Dean's Motel sign a year after the Matador tornado, as seen Monday, June 15, 2024, in Matador, Texas.
Billie Dean's Motel sign a year after the Matador tornado, as seen Monday, June 15, 2024, in Matador, Texas.

He said he remembered seeing the destruction and praying for the people who were lost, but then got to work cleaning up the town.

Now as mayor, Conner has an agenda to help prepare the city for the next storm.

"We have implemented an IRIS system, otherwise known as a reverse 911 system," Conner said.

An Immediate Response Information System is a mass notification system that allows city governments to communicate in real time about emergencies occurring via texts, emails and phone calls, according to the city's Facebook.

"We're working at getting more tornado sirens so there's better coverage in town," Conner said.

Texas Tech also installed the 154th West Texas Mesonet station in September 2023 to help detect future severe storms to provide additional warning time for the community.

Conner said the city is still facing issues, including an overfilled dump ground, which is frequently closed. Smith said the city still faces frequent power outages due to its continued reliance on a small substation, but both issues are being addressed.

Even though scars are still visible in town, Conner said he's looking toward the future.

"I want to see growth," Conner said. "I want to see the tax revenue go up with businesses. When you do that, that brings people. So we want to find not just a business, but the right business to come in and be a part of our community."

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: 2023 Matador tornado challenges ongoing as community rebuilds

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