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The psychological impact of surviving a natural disaster

Survivors spoke to KVUE about living through the deadly F-5 tornado that devastated Jarrell, Texas, 25 years ago.

JARRELL, Texas — Many Central Texans have experienced severe weather in their communities. But for residents who have lived through a truly harrowing storm, the memories last forever.

KVUE spoke to survivors about what it was like to live through the deadly F-5 tornado that devastated Jarrell, Texas, on May 27,1997.

"I just dropped down on my knees before I left out of the office and I said, 'God, take me if you take somebody, because they've got families,'" Brenda Cooper said. 

Without hesitation, Cooper was willing to give her own life if it meant sparing another's. 

"I had lived a good life," she said.

When the winds picked up and the tornado neared...

"You could see it lifting and going over that way. We were just getting hammered with leaves and paper shreds," Cooper said. 

She sought shelter deep in her family's rock quarry. When the coast was clear, she and her son headed out to First Street to help others.

"I knew the officer and I said, 'What can we do?' He said, 'Do you have rubber-tired loaders?' And I said yes. He said, 'Get over here, please, quick,'" Cooper said. "I got a hold of my son and one of our workers and I said, 'Come on, let's go to Double Creek."

KVUE's Yvonne Nava asked Cooper if she was helping pick up the debris in the devastated community.

"Well, that's what we thought, but we were actually picking up bodies," she said. "We were picking up body parts and putting them into those buckets of the tractors."

RELATED: 1997 Jarrell tornado: Volunteers arrived in droves to clear debris, donate blood

"I describe it as some things a kid should never see," said Chris Ardlt, who was 16 years old at the time. "At first, I felt guilty whenever we had, you know, some of my classmates that passed away."

Psychiatrist Dr. Joanne Sotelo works with Baylor Scott & White Health. She said survivor's guilt is very common and those feelings should never be minimized, regardless of how much time has passed.

"It's almost confusing, right? Because people don't understand. You survived, why are you feeling bad? And it could come from, 'Why me? Why am I special?' Like, 'It happened to someone else and not to me?' Or they also have a guilt of, 'I could have done more and I didn't,' especially if they were there," Sotelo said.

The 1997 tornado has had lasting effects on those who lived through it.

"Every time they say Tornado Warning, we pay attention," Cooper said. 

The thoughts, the fear return when severe weather hits – like it did in March, when a tornado formed in the same area in Jarrell. However, the route was a bit different and the destruction was far less.

Ardlt said he's definitely become hyper-aware of any change in the forecast.

"It kind of makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck when there's thunderstorms or, you know, thoughts of tornadoes," he said. "Even the mention of tornado warnings, everything kind of stops, you know?"

Ardlt also remembers the friends he lost.

"John Ruiz was in my class and then Erik Moehring was also in my class. John love basketball, man. I mean, I just remember him loving that game and we were just up here playing. And then, you know, two days later, it's, you know, you see things that just haunt you for the rest of your life," Ardlt said.

Sotelo said it's important to hold onto the positive memories like that but to also have awareness. If you find yourself feeling uneasy, there are ways to cope.

"Establish a sense of safety. Allow yourself permission to grieve and feel the emotions. Share them. If it starts to interfere with your day-to-day functioning, do seek help," she said.

Sotelo said that doesn't necessarily mean you have to talk with a professional. You can just connect with other people and share your feelings.

For all of KVUE's coverage honoring the anniversary of the 1997 Jarrell tornado, visit KVUE.com/Jarrell. Watch our full "Remembering Jarrell: 25 Years Later" special report below:

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