Hope survives storm

Published 12:18 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

Residents search rubble for personal belongings in the Colerain area April 18 following last weekend’s tornado outbreak. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

COLERAIN – A sleek, white helicopter landed on a grassy lot, and Gov. Beverly Perdue exited.

She was quickly surrounded by a wall of media and local officials.

Perdue’s April 18 visit to this town of around 200 was as rare as the wedge tornado that sliced through its outskirts just over a week ago.

Away from the crowd, on the outskirts of Perdue’s disaster tour, was Marty Barnes.

The maintenance chief of the Colerain Volunteer Fire Department was seated on the driver’s side of a fire truck parked at the lot’s edge.

The media wasn’t here to meet him.

Barnes had watched the progress of the reportedly half-mile-wide tornado that ripped through fields, woods and homes near this community.

Three members of his Colerain Baptist Church were killed.

Emergency calls started coming in at 6:30 p.m., but there was nothing the firefighters could do.

“We didn’t go out of the station until about 7:30,” Barnes said. “We got called out after the storm. We don’t leave during the storm.”

Barnes had to watch the vortex churn at a distance until it was safe for first responders to venture out.

At first, the tornado was obscured by rain, dust and debris, but became visible as it passed to the north.

“It looked like it was just a big old thunderstorm,”  Barnes reported. “It was so huge.”

The standing-still shock of seeing this thing didn’t last long.

There was work to be done.

Some rescues would be hard, others impossible.

The story was much the same across the Old North State, where the April 16 storms killed 24 people – 12 of whom lived in Bertie County.

The National Weather Service tracked the Bertie tornado on radar.

It touched down about one mile south of Askewville then charged “continuously for nearly 19 miles … finally lifting to the east of Harrellsville,” reads a weather service report.

At its biggest, the funnel was a half-mile to almost three-fourths of a mile wide, the weather service said.

At one point, the parent cloud spawned two tornadoes that ran roughly parallel to each other “simultaneously for a period of about 5 miles,” the report reads.

One of these tornadoes crossed into Hertford County, where it destroyed homes and caused serious injuries but no deaths.

The April 16 outbreak was the worst in at least a generation for North Carolina, a state far better accustomed to weathering hurricanes than monster tornadoes.

The Associated Press said NWS confirmed at least 28 tornado touchdowns across the state.

Beaufort County was spared deaths, injuries and major damage.

The weather service said an EFO tornado with 70 mph winds was spotted at Bath. The 30-yard-wide funnel had a path of only .4 miles.

The cell that spawned this tornado slipped east of Washington in the evening, near sundown. A funnel cloud reportedly was seen over River Road.

Bertie residents weren’t so fortunate.

A couple of days after the disaster began, George Philpott, a South Carolina volunteer with the American Red Cross, was in Bertie County.

Philpott said monetary donations were welcome.

People can donate to the Red Cross at a local chapter office, online at www.redcross.org or by texting “Red Cross” 90999 for an automatic $10 donation.

Barnes wasn’t interested in sharing the details of what he saw last Saturday, and wasn’t asked to.

The story was etched into his face, which tightened when he talked about the tragedy.

“We’re doing very well,” he said of his community. “We’ve kind of accepted it.”

Faith is important here, never more so than now.

For Barnes, faith brings a solace he hopes others will share.

“I hope it’s changed a lot of lives, that’s for sure,” he said.