Road to Recovery

Published 8:55 am Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The warm rays of sunshine broke through in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 17, 2011. That light, typically welcomed by many, on this particular morning illuminated a sad scene.

Homes were in complete ruin; power poles were snapped like pretzels; forests and farm fields were littered with debris; and lives were forever shattered….all tell-tale signs of the devastation left in the wake of a tornado.

From Askewville to Colerain to Harrellsville, emergency responders worked feverishly through the night of April 16 and the days to follow in an effort to provide help, hope and relief for those impacted by twin twisters that tore through the heart of the Roanoke-Chowan area.

Twelve local citizens lost their lives, making this storm the deadliest in R-C history. Those who survived faced a mountainous task of picking up the pieces and attempting to return to their everyday lives. For some, that return to normalcy never occurred.

Damage in Bertie and Hertford counties exceeded $30 million.

“When you ride through the area today you still see the devastating effects of homes that were not repaired, empty lots and stripped trees,” said Hertford County Emergency Management Director Chris Smith.  “However, the good you see here in our county are the repaired homes and the three newly built homes by NC Baptist Men that were totally destroyed.

“Often there are long term efforts needed to assist affected people after a disaster such as this,” Smith added. “Some of the residents’ homes that were destroyed were not rebuilt or repaired.  In this type of event you cannot just make things appear as they once did, even with removal of debris and rebuilding.”

Smith called the efforts put forth from the local first responding agencies as second to none.

“I was traveling back from a fire class in Wayne County when I heard on the radio the severe weather hitting various parts of western and central North Carolina,” Smith recalled of April 16, 2011. “The reports were severe and immediately concerned me as to what was heading our way.  When I returned home and I made phone calls to our county emergency response agencies’ making them aware of what was happening and to make preparations of what may be heading our way.

“When Hertford County was put under a tornado warning, there was enough time to issue the warning to fire, EMS, and law enforcement by radio. Moments later I remember one of the Harrellsville Fire Department members advising that a tornado was on the ground in the Harrellsville NC 45 area,” Smith said.

Immediately, EMS staff, Sheriff’s Office personnel, Harrellsville Fire Department members and Emergency Management units were en route to that location. Smith said he remembered Will Liverman of the Sheriff’s Office calling him on the radio to advise they had found an individual trapped under the rubble of a mobile home near Baker Road.

“This quickly became our first rescue effort and area of concentration due to the most recognizable impact reported at the time,” Smith said. “Fortunately, this would be only one of two reported injuries in the area with no fatalities.  We were very blessed in that retrospect; however, it would not be the end of the many people that were affected in that area.”

Once the reported injured persons were removed and transported to the hospital, an onsite Incident Command Post was relocated at Harrellsville FD to broaden and reorganize efforts.  Additional assistance from NC Emergency Management, Gates County Emergency Management, Union and Winton fire departments were requested that evening to search the remaining area to account for residents, record damaged areas and report local hazards. HCEMS had four units available and one from MedEx Medical Transport for any additional injuries found or reported.  HCSO assisted with security and search for accountability of residences as well.

“There were many others agencies that were quick to respond to the event as well; not to leave any out, but to name a few that come to mind are DOT, Dominion Power, Roanoke Chowan Hospital and the Red Cross,” Smith said.

He continued, “I remember it being a long night and I recollect not really grasping the magnitude of the devastation until light early the next morning.  I still vividly remember seeing houses that were lifted and over turned, trees striped of it limbs, houses hammered with debris and power poles leaning sideways.  I do not think I will ever forget these images.”

Additional manpower was utilized from the Ahoskie and Murfreesboro police departments to secure the area so residents could collect any belongings they had left and to keep unneeded people away from the many hazards.  Assistance from Murfreesboro, Millennium and Ahoskie fire departments along with members of Harrellsville VFD assisted with salvage, mitigating hazards and debris removal for emergency traffic on roads and driveways.

Hertford County’s damage assessment revealed there was a total of 64 structures affected with 16 being categorized as destroyed.  The damaged to structures was estimated at $1,820,336, while agriculture was estimated at $3,820,336 and forestland estimated at $11,853.  Agriculture land had major damage to irrigation systems and scattered debris everywhere.  The Department of Correction was used to remove the debris out of fields so local farmers could get in the fields for the rapidly approaching planting season.

Due to close proximity to Colerain, which was also impacted by the tornado, the decision was made to place a Disaster Recovery Center there to allow residents to register for assistance with the FEMA.

“Looking back, we all know that local, state and/or federal government cannot replace all the things that were lost in an event such as this and there were many churches and volunteer groups that tried to assist in filling the gaps,” Smith said. “Local churches from near and far, groups such as Baptist Men of NC, Red Cross, Samaritans Purse and many other individual community members and businesses offered donated goods, materials, labor, and funding to help fill these gaps so the affected people could get back to some since of normal life.

“Even though there was so much lost by the residents in Harrellsville, there was so much to be thankful for.  Loss of life could have easily been a reality, as we saw from our neighboring county Bertie, in which the tornado originated and traveled through,” Smith concluded.


Hospital kicks into Disaster response

The tornadoes that touched down that day also put local medical facilities to the test. The storm sent Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital’s emergency department in Disaster (D-1) response.  Additional staff was called in to respond to the disaster. Physicians, nurses and support staff worked through the night to care for the injured.

Forty-two patients were treated for injuries; 13 patients were treated for non-traumatic tornado related complaints; 10 deceased individuals were brought to the hospital by rescue squads that lined up outside the emergency department through the night.

Dr. Joe Tripp, medical director for emergency services in Hertford County, provided overall supervision in the emergency department.  He was assisted by Susan Brinkley, Director of Quality, Patient Safety and Regulatory, and Nettie Evans, Vice President for Patient Care Services.

“Although we did have some communication issues, the overall disaster management went well at our hospital,” said Dr. Tripp. “We operated an Incident Command center in the emergency department, and triage nurses performed a large amount of local wound care. Behavioral health staff formed teams to handle death notification and family rounding.”

Hospital staff conducted debriefing following the disaster to discuss what worked and what could have improved.


Bertie County

Bertie County suffered half of the loss of life in the state of North Carolina as 12 of the 24 who died in the storms of April 16 were located in the Colerain area.

In addition to the loss of life, the county saw 67 single-family homes destroyed and another 14 with major damage during those storms. One business was destroyed and another received major damage.

In addition, there was major damage to one government building and one structure labeled as “other.”

Despite the loss, the county has completed about 90 percent of the repairs and rebuilds planned to help people recover from their loss.

To date, Samaritan’s Purse has completed four rebuilt homes and is in the process of doing five more. The North Carolina Baptist Men have completed one rebuild in Bertie County.

“I think we have come a long way,” Bertie County Commission Chairman L.C. Hoggard III said. “It has been a long road, but our citizens have received quite a bit of help as they have made it back to some semblance of normalcy.

“We have been blessed to have both Samaritan’s Purse and the North Carolina Baptist Men in our county,” he said. “They have worked very hard to help our citizens in this recovery.”

In addition to those groups, Hoggard said the county and its citizens were thankful for those who had come to help in the recovery and to those who had given donations of time, money and other assets.

Hoggard stressed, however, that no matter how much rebuilding takes place, the loss of life will never be forgotten.

“I think we’re all glad to see people move back into their homes or into new homes, but we cannot ever forget the 12 people who lost their lives in the storm,” he said. “That is a constant thought with us and should be something that we remember forever in Bertie County.”

Because of those 12 people and the other devastation, the county selected Monday (April 16, 2012) as a Day to Remember and held a candlelight vigil to honor those who lost their lives.