People in this rural community north of Clinton awakened by a mighty storm Monday night don’t know what hit them – meteorologists weren’t calling it a tornado on Tuesday – but one after another said they knew what saved them.
“Nothing but the grace of God,” said Brenda Smith, who was in her trailer on Basstown Road when the wind picked it up a little after 11 p.m. With Smith and her 11-year-old Schnauzer inside, the wind lifted the trailer and rolled it.
“I ended up in the kitchen, on my knees,” she said. “Well, behind the kitchen, actually. The trailer left me. It decided it didn’t want me in it anymore, and it rolled over and left me.”
What remained of the house was upside-down on Tuesday morning. Power crews were at work nearby trying to right broken poles and downed lines. Traffic on Basstown Road slowed as people stared at the wreckage.
Smith walked away from it with her dog, some bruises and scratches and what looked like a black eye coming on. “It’s a miracle,” she said.
Fourteen people were injured as a result of the weather, none seriously, said assistant Sampson County Manager Susan Holder. Winds flipped a dozen mobile homes, tipped mature oak trees and wrenched off the tops of tall pines, dropping them on cars and houses. Twelve to 18 structures were damaged or destroyed, including a half-dozen turkey and hog barns, Holder said. At least two contained animals but it’s unclear how the livestock fared, she said.
“I think we’re all still in response mode,” Holder said at midday. “I still haven’t been to bed.”
A quarter-mile from where Smith’s home was flipped, two more mobile homes were destroyed in a neighborhood called Deerfield Estates, but neither was occupied.
A couple of doors down from those, Christopher Wahlstrom had been asleep for three hours when his house shook him awake. The first thing he noticed, he said, was the howling sound of the wind.
“Then I heard water running,” he said, and thought the jostling had cause a pipe connection to fail. But no. The wind had peeled back three fourths of his roof, leaving cover over only the room where he lay.
“It was raining in my house.”
Just the day before, Wahlstrom said, he had rearranged the interior of his home and moved his bedroom into the room at the end, the one where the roof held tight.
“By the grace of God,” Wahlstrom said. Wahlstrom is a carpenter, and said the reason his house didn’t topple in the wind was because he built it solid, stripping down the original mobile home to its base and rebuilding it from the studs up. The only thing he had not yet replaced from the original, he said, was the roof.
“God figured I wasn’t working fast enough. He just decided to help me out and pull that one off.”
Wahlstrom said he planned to make a trip to the lumber yard Tuesday afternoon and start rebuilding. In the meantime, he said, a friend was coming to help him cover the roof with a tarp.
He may need it; the National Weather Service predicted another round of storms might hit the area Tuesday night.
Storms didn’t look that bad on radar
Wahlstrom was one of several people in the area where the storm hit who said they have severe-weather alert apps on their phones but got no warning that anything might happen in advance.
Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, are emergency messages sent by authorized government authorities through a mobile carrier. Government partners include local and state public safety agencies, FEMA, the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Weather Service.
The National Weather Service sends alerts for tornado and flash-flood warnings; hurricane, typhoon, dust storm and extreme wind warnings; and tsunami warnings.
Forecasters monitoring radar at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh did see the storms in Sampson County Monday night, but didn’t believe they met criteria for a WEA alert, said NWS meteorologist Jonathan Blaes. Severe thunderstorms must have winds above 58 mph and quarter-sized hail, he said.
The NWS issued several Special Weather Statements for Sampson County, including at 10:55 p.m. and 11:19 p.m., warning that a thunderstorm could bring wind gusts up to 50 mph to areas in the county, Blaes said. Special Weather Statements appear on the NWS website and its social media but aren’t pushed to people’s phones, he said.
At the Clinton Airport’s weather station, a sensor recorded 32-mph wind gusts between 11 and 11:15 p.m., he said. At weather stations in Cumberland County and Moore County, gusts were in the low to mid 40-mph range.
Wind speeds usually must reach above 50 mph for trees and mobile homes to be toppled or tossed, he said.
Meteorologists have archived data and plan to go through it to see if something was missed or if there are opportunities to improve future forecasts, he said.
“With these kind of events, we always strive to learn and improve our forecast and warnings,” he said. “And we are already going through the process to ascertain what happened and to improve our warning service in the future.”
‘We’ve got a mess here’
Sampson County has taken a beating from the weather recently. An EF-1 tornado hit the town of Autryville on May 23, bringing winds of 110 mph. One person suffered minor injuries, and the town’s fire department building, two fire engines and a fire truck were destroyed.
Nearby Roseboro Rescue and EMS has planned a bake sale for 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at its building on June 10 to help the Autryville Fire Department rebuild.
The storm Monday night also left a wide path of damage and debris. At the mobile home park, the remains of the two destroyed homes lay in a pile and the ground around them was littered with sheet metal screws, tangled window blinds and shattered glass. Insulation and roofing metal was strewn into nearby trees.
The National Weather Service said the damage was caused by straight-line winds and not a tornado, but folks in its path beg to differ.
A tenth of a mile away, sections of roof had been yanked off of several poultry houses on land adjacent to Carolyn and Donald Royal’s property. The Royals weren’t home Monday night, but they got a call at the beach from Donald’s brother, who lives nearby and told them, “We’ve had a tornado up here.”
Unable to go back to sleep, they made coffee at 4 a.m. and got on the road.
“Not knowing was the worst,” Carolyn Royal said. Tree-cutting crews had cleared enough of the pines, oaks and tulip poplars off Renfrow Road for them to reach their house and see that, except for some lost shingles, it was fine. But dozens of trees the couple had planted in nearly 40 years of living in the house were broken off or uprooted.
A small barn appeared to be a total loss and another sustained heavy damage.
“We’ve got a mess here,” Royal said. “But I know we’re blessed. Some people lost their houses.”
Ricky Joyner thought he was going to lose more than that. He was in a mobile home in Deerfield Estates with his friend, Shanell Brown, and Brown’s daughter.
Joyner and Brown were up late, he said, watching “Empire.” Just when it was getting good, the satellite went out. It started raining – hard – and then the wind hit. The front door blew open. Joyner managed to close it and lock the deadbolt.
“It sounded like a train coming through the trailer park,” Joyner said.
Joyner, a Marine Corps veteran who said he deployed twice overseas, said he and Brown and Brown’s daughter took refuge in the bathroom in the center of the house.
“We started praying,” he said. “We thought we were gone.”