TOP 10 of 2014: County hit by series of tornadoes
Published 7:31 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014
In 2014, Beaufort County experienced two different encounters with tornadoes—one on April 7, which hit northeastern Beaufort County, and a series on April 25, ripping through the county on both sides of the Pamlico River and leaving quite a bit of damage and loss. The April tornadoes that hit the county in spring is the Washington Daily News No. 1 story of the year.
It landed in Chocowinity at Frederick Road, then plowed a path through Beaufort County: the Town of Chocowinity, Whichards Beach Road, over the Pamlico to land at Mimosa Mobile Home Park. There, it took a northeasterly heading: to Wells Avenue and Turkey Trot Road, passing through Douglas Crossroads and running parallel with N.C. Highway 32 North to North Boyd Road. Leaving a trail of debris and destruction in its wake, the April 25 tornado then went airborne. By 7:50 p.m. that night, Beaufort County’s 911-call center was inundated with reports of damage, power outages and injuries. The next day, the National Weather Service gave the tornado an EF3 rating, with winds around 150 mph, but many on the ground saw more than one.
“It appears there was more than one tornado at certain points, but they were short lived — they’re called sister tornadoes,” John Pack, coordinator of Beaufort County Emergency Management, said at the time.
In Chocowinity, the tornado started around U.S. Highway 17 across from Chocowinity Middle School, crossed the highway and tore through residential neighborhoods and then through Bragaw Lane and onto U.S. 17 bypass. An 86-year old resident of Bragaw Lane in Chocowinity, Mrs. Louise Hill, was sitting in her recliner, unaware of the impending danger that was quickly approaching, according to her daughter, Wendy Rowe.
“Then the roof started falling in and the tree limb fell down about a foot in front of her feet,” said Rowe. “Two strangers that were going over the overhead pass saw it when it came through. They didn’t know her from Adam and they pulled in here and stopped and rescued her. The power was out, she was scared to death and one of the strangers noticed the coat hanging down. They carried her to the fire department until I could get to her. They were two guys — one was from Cypress Landing that lives out on a boat — anyway, they were her angels.”
However, it seemed that Hill was being watched over by another angel prior to her rescue, according to her family: a limb that had shot through the ceiling of the house just above Hill’s left shoulder and at the end of that limb hung a United States Army coat on a hanger. The coat belonged to Hill’s late husband, Ray Hill, who had retired from the U.S. Army, according to Rowe. At the time, Rowe said that the coat hanging on the limb symbolized her late father watching over her mother.
Several homes along N.C. Highway 33, U.S. 17 and Bragaw Lane in Chocowinity sustained severe damage. Saturday, the day after the tornado, people could be seen everywhere lending a helping hand to victims of the storm, passing out water bottles and offering emotional support to victims.
According to Pack, the Town of Chocowinity and the Whichards Beach Road area sustained the most damage on the south side of the Pamlico River.
Pack said about 90 homes and businesses between Chocowinity and Whichards Beach were destroyed or damaged by the tornadoes. Two people from the Chocowinity area were taken to Vidant Beaufort Hospital and then to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, but no life-threatening injuries were reported.
On the north side of the Pamlico River, approximately 110 homes and business sustained damaged. For some, it was total destruction.
Essie Floyd was asleep in her home on U.S. Highway 264 East, just east of Beaufort County Community College, when the tornado rolled her mobile home over, flinging the 94-year-old free of the destruction into the neighboring field. Floyd was admitted to Vidant Beaufort Hospital with a broken wrist, a deep laceration and various contusions. Unfortunately, Floyd would never fully recover and died several months later.
According to his son, Walton Wallace was making his escape from the coming storm, and just pulling out of his driveway on U.S. 264 East, when the tornado demolished his home, picking up the Jeep he was driving and putting it back down, trapped by debris.
At each of these homes, family and friends gathered the next morning and started the task of sifting through what remained of the homes, picking out the salvageable and dumping the rest in hastily acquired waste bins. It was a scene that followed the tornado’s path across the county.
The immediate response, however, did not surprise Pack.
“It’s amazing. It’s really amazing. It’s what — living in a small-county, small-town rural environment — you would expect,” Pack said. “It happens all across America, but even more so in the Carolinas from my experience.”
The outpouring of help extended into the volunteer community, as well, according to Pack. At 8:30 p.m., as the call went out to all county fire and EMS personnel to report to their stations, more than the current roster of volunteers showed up — retired firefighters came to lend a hand, offering to man the stations so as many current volunteers could respond where needed out in the county as possible. Pack said roughly 100 volunteers worked through the night, at times going into areas on foot due to the amount of debris.
“We had to walk into certain areas,” he said, citing Wells Avenue as one of those places. “The roads were so crisscrossed with power line and limbs. We sent two firefighters in with backpacks and radios to check on the wellbeing of the people down there. …There were homes damaged and people needing to get out, but there was no one injured. And they were very patient.”
At dawn, another 200 volunteers came on to relieve those who’d worked overnight.
Down River Road, crews with Tideland Electric and Lee Electrical Construction also pulled all-nighters, working to get power restored to the many residents still in the dark. Vanceboro Fire and EMS units joined in, as did Marine Fisheries — doing a sweep of the river to make sure no debris blocked the channel.
Pack said the response he saw to the tornado rivals that of the outpouring of support experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the 2011 storm that devastated much of Beaufort County. Like Hurricane Irene, a state of emergency in the county was declared and travel was restricted in some areas most damaged by the tornado. The state of emergency was in effect until that Monday morning, though Pack said Emergency Management would reevaluate the situation later that day to determine whether it should be extended.
Following the string of sister tornadoes, several area nonprofits, churches, disaster relief organizations, businesses and individuals pitched in to help with cleanup, donated food and funds and/or housed out-of-town volunteers. Proceeds from the spring’s Tar Landing Jam were even repurposed to go to victims.
Hill, of Bragaw Lane, will soon have a new home thanks to the work and coordination of the N.C. Conference of United Methodist Church Disaster Recovery Ministries. Several other faith-based disaster relief volunteer groups aided in the recovery of victims, including a Mennonite group from Hyde County, the Baptist Men Disaster Relief and St. Clair’s Church of Christ, to name a few. PotashCorp-Aurora presented a donation of $100,000 to the American Red Cross to go toward aiding the victims of the tornado.
According to Red Cross figures, as of May 5, the organizations had served 4,819 meals and snacks, opened 86 cases providing individualized support to 217 residents, mobilized 147 disaster workers and distributed 2,229 supplies, including blankets, comfort kits with hygiene items, clean up kits and items including hand sanitizer, storage containers, sunscreen, bug spray, heavy-duty trash bags, tarps, rope, duct tape, first aid kits and rakes.
Though many local businesses donated food and/or funds to victims, Washington Crab and Seafood Shack Owner Tony Tripp pledge a donation of 10 percent of the business’ weekly sales and presented a check to the Red Cross, as well. Residents of Twin Lakes Campground hosted a day of fun, food and entertainment weeks after the tornadoes to raise money for victims.
Though not nearly as widespread as the damage done by the April 25 tornadoes, the tornado on April 7, claimed the homes and property of some in the northeastern part of the county. Categorized as an EF-2, it ripped through the Belhaven/Pantego area, doing significant damage and claiming the home of the Van Essendelft family. Months later, the family would receive an offer for a free house, with the only condition being they were responsible for transport. Through community support and volunteer labor, the Van Essendelfts were aided with setting the foundation and moving the house, which would house the couple and their five children. The weekend after the April 7 tornado, a benefit was also coordinated and held for the victims: a combination yard sale, dinner fundraiser, car show, auction and musical performance.
Both occurrences with tornadoes in 2014 proved tough for Beaufort County, but through unity, volunteers and support from the community, victims and others affected have since rebuilt.