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‘We built it before; we’ll build it again’

John Paul Zapata huddled with his wife and three children in a bathtub, covered by two twin mattresses, while an EF-4 tornado — with winds up to 200 mph — ripped through his house in Granbury, Texas, on Wednesday. Photo by Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity International

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Learn more about Habitat’s response to the Texas tornadoes.


By Bill Sanders

GRANBURY, Texas (May 17, 2013) — Ruth Zapata was sure she and her family were going to die Wednesday night.


Earlier in the evening, Ruth and her husband, John Paul, along with three of their four children, were standing outside their house in Rancho Brazos subdivision in northeast Texas, marveling at the baseball-size hail.

“Honestly, it didn’t bother me,” John Paul said. “I didn’t think a tornado was going to hit here. Boy, was I wrong.”

John Paul walked around the corner of the house and looked up. He saw what was coming.

“He gave me ‘the look,’” Ruth said, “which was to seek protection.”

They ran inside the house, and Ruth tried to drag one of her sons’ twin mattresses to the bathroom. Nothing was working right, though. Not her arms, not her legs, nothing.

“I went so weak,” she said.

“He laid two twin mattresses on top of us,” Ruth said. “He was holding one side, and the rest of us were holding the other.”She called to her husband, who was rushing to open windows throughout the house to relieve the pressure. He quickly pulled two twin mattresses into the bathroom, where the whole family was huddled in the tub.

She was determined to be strong for her children. She urged her boys to stay calm — even singing a song with them, “Dios Esta Aqui.” Translation: “God Is Here.”

When the tornado hit, rational thinking blew away.

“I think the tub was moving,” Ruth said. “I could feel air and water hitting us, pulling us. We all felt it wanted to take the mattresses off of us, but we were holding on so tight.”

Then she couldn’t hold the mattresses anymore. “I thought we were gone; it was going to take us because we couldn’t hang on. It took all the air out and off us. I couldn’t breathe; they couldn’t breathe. I decided I couldn’t do nothing more. We were gone. I let go of my body, of my home, everything.”

She turned it all over to God, she said. Three years earlier, she had given God full credit for allowing her and her children to move into their own home. (She married John Paul, a construction worker, later.)

“We worked so hard for this home and everything we had in it, but I was letting go,” she said. “A moment after the tornado stopped, we could breathe. I told my kids, ‘We can’t forget this. We were given a second chance to live.’”

Everyone in the Zapata family is OK. Anna, 18; Ezikiel, 12; and Noe, 7, rode out the tornado in the bathtub with their parents. Daughter Rebecca, 16, was away from home but also survived without injuries. All are staying at an emergency shelter at First Christian Church of Granbury.

On Friday morning, Ruth’s face showed a mix of apprehension, relief, exhaustion and determination.

While police continue to search for survivors in the devastated neighborhood, residents are forbidden from going in to survey the damage to their homes. The Zapatas have gotten word that her house is still standing, but with a huge hole in the back.

Like many of their neighbors who helped build their own houses, the Zapatas are eager to assess the damage and start rebuilding.

“So many people are telling us now, ‘We built it before; we’ll build it again,’” Ruth said.