Year’s Top Stories – #1

Published 11:01 am Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It was the deadliest day in Roanoke-Chowan history.

Twelve local citizens tragically lost their lives after a pair of tornadoes left a wide trail of destruction across the heart of Bertie County and the southeastern corner of Hertford County on April 16.

The local twisters were part of a much larger weather system that impacted numerous southern states.

It was a typical late Saturday afternoon at the home of Charles and Oleathia Jones, residents of Baker Road, located just off NC 45 between Harrellsville and Colerain.

Mr. Jones was out in the yard, performing what he referred to as “man stuff.” Inside the spacious modular home, Mrs. Jones was entertaining four guests.

“I wasn’t paying anything any mind; I didn’t watch the news; I was out here working in the yard,” Mr. Jones said. “I didn’t know what it was until I noticed the railings on my porch began to move back and forth. I ran in the house and told everyone to take cover and take cover now. All I can say now, after seeing all this, is that we’re very blessed.”

“It was calm here and then, bam, it hit all of a sudden,” Mrs. Jones recalled. “My husband came in the door and said hit the floor. It was then that I could hear the sound…it was like a locomotive in my front yard. Part of our roof is gone; the bedrooms are a mess and our outbuilding in the back yard has a big hole in the top. It pretty much tore up the place.”

Inside the Jones home, furniture, fixtures and insulation covered the floor, as did shreds of broken glass.

“I guess it was the debris from across the road that the wind picked up and pelted our house,” Mrs. Jones said. “We had to duck out of the way of flying glass.”

The first locale to be impacted by the storm was Askewville. There, damage in the town and its outlying areas started along West Askewville Street and extended down a side dirt path where more than half a dozen mobile homes were completely destroyed. Debris was found as high as 40 feet off the ground in trees. There was also extensive damage to homes and businesses on the New Road and down Elm Grove Road and on the Exter Road.

Jake Dunlow, the owner of Jake’s Trailer Court where the mobile homes were located, said no one was home in any of the units that were destroyed. He said the only homes still standing in the trailer court or its surrounding area are those where residents remained during the storm.

The homes that were destroyed were scattered across a field and into neighboring yards and wooded areas.

The fatalities were confined to the Colerain area, especially along a stretch of NC 42 and the Morris Ford Road.

Morgan Barfield tied an American flag to a battered tree in front of her grandmother’s demolished house along NC 42. 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 as Helen White was killed along with the young woman’s aunt and uncle.

For the husband and wife team of Richard and Jean Burkett, they recorded Bertie County history. The Burketts, who reside at 114 Kitchen Spruill Road, a dirt path located off NC 42 just west of Colerain, managed to take a photo of the massive, three-quarter-mile wide tornado just before it struck their property. After snapping the photo, the couple found safety in a closet under a stairwell inside their two-story home.

While local citizens were sorting through the rubble, Gov. Beverly Perdue toured locations in the tornado’s path with U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. US Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) also toured the destruction.

Damages, including freshly planted agricultural crops as well as timber losses, were in the $25 million range.

In the days, weeks and months following the deadly twisters, aid poured into the two counties from across the nation. The North Carolina Baptist Men and Samaritan’s Purse spent months rebuilding homes in the two counties, six of which were completed in time for Christmas.

Clothing and food donations were so numerous that several locations in Windsor were used to store the items.

The help kept coming in December where members of a church in Charlotte delivered Christmas gifts, packages and toys as well as household items, bedding and toiletries to 30 Bertie County families affected by the tornadoes.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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