By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) - Veronica Orellana, her husband and three sons were used to living in cramped spaces until six years ago, when they moved into their three-bedroom house in Granbury, Texas, built by a nonprofit that constructs homes for low-income families.
But since a deadly tornado ripped through Habitat for Humanity-built homes in the Rancho Brazos neighborhood late on Wednesday, the family has no idea what happened to their house.
"We were so happy," Orellana said of moving into the house. "This is the biggest house we've ever lived in."
Granbury, a town of 8,000 people about 35 miles southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, took the hardest hit.
The tornado, which killed six people, took a tremendous toll on a neighborhood filled with families who, before moving in, performed hundreds of hours of "sweat equity" by working to construct their own homes and those of others as required by Habitat for Humanity.
None of the people who died lived in Habitat homes, but all but two of the 61 Habitat homes in Rancho Brazos were damaged and 15 were destroyed, according to Mario Flores, director of disaster response for Habitat for Humanity International.
"It's incredible what Mother Nature can do," Flores said. "There are entire houses that are nowhere to be found. If it weren't for the concrete foundation, you wouldn't know a house was there."
On Friday, the streets in Rancho Brazos had been cleared of debris, and where homes once stood there was nothing but tree limbs, doors, broken windows and bricks. The twisted metal frames of mobile homes were strewn about and trash blew across the empty lots.
The tornado, which brought winds of between 166 to 200 miles per hour, was rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service, the second-most powerful level for such a storm.
Orellana, 38, who owns a small retail shop in Granbury, was home with her 13-year-old son when she heard the warning siren, looked out the window and saw that the twister had already arrived.
Her car blocked by a fallen tree, Orellana clutched her son's hand and ran, dodging scattered furniture and trash cans until she saw her nephew's truck coming down the street.
"We jumped in and didn't look back," she said.
Orellana's husband, Jose, a construction worker, had worked to build their home with other Habitat volunteers while Orellana and the boys planted flowers and grass, she said.
Now they are staying with a nearby relative in a tiny house.
"We have no money right because I was too scared to grab anything from the house," Orellana said. "My husband's tools and truck are still there and we can't get in. He can't work without them."
Displaced residents in the blocked-off Rancho Brazos neighborhood may be able to retrieve their belongings on Saturday, officials said.
Tiffany Mayes, 33, a single mother of 18-year-old twins about to graduate from high school, has been staying with her mother since she learned that she could not return to her Habitat home. She has also seen photos of her house on the news.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "No windows. No doors."
Flores said none of the Habitat homes were built with safe rooms, or special reinforced areas that can shield people from tornadoes.
"The local affiliate is already talking about how they can include that in the rebuilding process," Flores said. "This is a tornado-prone area, so it only makes sense."
Habitat for Humanity has helped build or refurbish more than 600,000 homes for families worldwide since it began in 1976, according to its website. Houses are built using volunteer labor - from the future homeowners and others - as well as donated funds and materials.
To qualify, families must be lower-income and living in substandard or overcrowded housing. The homeowners selected are financed by Habitat with a 20-year, no-interest mortgage. Each family must also invest at least 300 hours of sweat equity in the building of their houses and the houses of others.
A family of four was scheduled to move into a Habitat home in the Rancho Brazos neighborhood this weekend, Flores said, but now that home's foundation is all that remains.
"For this family, the dream has been delayed, but not interrupted," he said. "We have been here in this community for a long time. We are not going anywhere."
(Additional reporting by Jana J. Pruet, editing by Corrie MacLaggan, G Crosse)