Coping and healing

Published 12:58 am Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Morgan Barfield (foreground), a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, pauses from searching through the rubble of her grandmother’s destroyed house Monday in the Colerain community of Bertie County. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

Victims struggle with emotional, physical damages

COLERAIN – Morgan Barfield tied an American flag to a battered tree in front of her grandmother’s demolished house.

Barfield wanted the flag to remind survivors that many people were left behind to cope with Saturday’s fatal tornado outbreak.

But her grandmother wasn’t there to see that red, white and blue reminder.

Barfield’s grandmother, Helen White, was killed along with the young woman’s aunt and uncle as a massive tornado swept through this community.

White had turned 90 on March 12.

“It’s hard,” said Barfield on Monday, taking a break from sorting through the remnants of her grandmother’s home.

“We just lost a cousin on the other side of the family (last) Monday,” she shared. “We’re staying together, close as a family, and the community and everybody’s behind us.”

Family and community support likely will be key in the coming days as the recovery from the weekend’s record tornado outbreak continues.

Bertie County was especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities recorded, three of them just steps away from the pile of rubble that was White’s home.

Rebuilding will occur, residents said; but first, there must be funerals, and a search for the relics of lost lives.

Barfield isn’t sure when the funeral for her family members will take place.

“We can’t even think about it right now, to be honest,” she said. “We’re all still in so much shock and just have so much other stuff on our mind to get through first.”

As she spoke, Gov. Beverly Perdue toured locations in the tornado’s path with U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.

Perdue summed up the mood across the state.

“It’s the spirit of, ‘Thank God, first of all, I’m alive,’” she said.

Local, state and national media swamped the shoulder of the highway a stone’s throw away.

Crews from electric companies worked to put up new utility poles. The old poles had been broken and tossed into fields.

Not far from this scene was Marshall Harrell, a Gates County resident who had his hands full sifting through the debris that had been his parents’ house.

His parents, Raymond and Ethel Cale, weren’t home when the tornado struck.

Harrell’s parents, both in their 70s, now have nothing to come home to. The couple’s house was gutted by the storm’s incredible winds.

“I mean, it looks like an old, beat-up house,” Harrell said, “but, I mean, it was a pretty house.”

His mother is a meticulous housekeeper, he related. Now, the interior of her once-immaculate home is crusted over with mud. The front window has been blown out, frame and all, and some of the roof has been sheared away.

“I think we’re going to do pretty good,” Harrell said. “I mean, they lost everything, OK. But they’re lucky. We can get in the house and salvage stuff. The folks over here, there’s three lost their lives right next door. They can’t salvage nothing.”

Harrell already has removed his parents’ clothes and what pictures he and his two helpers could find.

“Privacy’s gone now, man,” he said. “Somebody asked me last night when I left, ‘You going to close the door?’ I said, ‘What’s the use?’”

And he doesn’t mind all the media poking around – not so much.

“This stuff needs to be aired because when there’s a tornado warning people say, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” Harrell concluded. “Well, it can.”

Not far away, Glenn Collins, a contractor from Edenton, had turned up to help an old customer with an estimate to repair significant damage to a house.

Asked whether he expects a lot of repair calls this week, Collins replied, “I’m not a storm-chaser.”

He probably will get some calls from people whose homes were affected by the storms, he acknowledged, but: “I’d rather not have it if it has to be like this, even with the economy like it is and struggling to survive. If I gotta make money, I’d rather not make it like this.”

Across the Bertie County line in Hertford County, Loria Williams, county manager, got an up-close look at the damage.

Hertford County officials recorded some serious injuries, Williams said.

Some 18 homes in the county had major damage, while 36 had minor damage, according to Chris Smith, emergency-management coordinator.

“Just to see the devastation firsthand, it hits you very, very hard,” Williams said. “But we’re fortunate. We didn’t have any fatalities.”

Jonathan Clayborne, a Washington Daily News staff member, was loaned to the Daily News’ sister publication, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, to help it provide coverage of the storm system’s impact on Bertie County and nearby areas in the wake of Saturday’s deadly weather.