“Better safe than sorry.”
That was the consistent mantra of Red Cross, Social Services and Health Department employees on Wednesday as they staffed a Johnston County storm shelter in Smithfield.
Two people took advantage of the shelter early Wednesday afternoon as the threat of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes blanketed central and eastern North Carolina. Johnston County Emergency Management announced Wednesday morning that it would open a shelter at noon for residents concerned for their safety.
Later in the day, wind howled, rain poured in diagonal sheets, lightning illuminated thick cloud cover and thunder rumbled in Smithfield as trees swayed in heavy gusts. But inside the First Baptist Church Ministry Center on South Fourth Street, 1990s tunes sounded from cellphone speakers and the dribble of a basketball echoed through the building. Television weather coverage and the chatter of a sheriff’s deputy radio cut in intermittently.
“It’s good for when people come in, they know it’s safe,” said Allison Smith, an income-maintenance administrator with the Department of Social Services. “They need to know this is a calm place for them. You can’t be nervous. Even if there’s a tornado right outside that door, you can’t be.”
Pizza, peanut butter, crackers, chips, soft drinks, coffee, fruit snacks and other items filled a table in one room of the ministry center. Staff alternated between games of H.O.R.S.E. on the basketball court and watching weather on TV and mobile devices, When the county got its turn at a tornado warning, every cellphone in the room buzzed or blared to life.
“I’d rather have it and not need it,” Smith said of opening the shelter.
“You have to take it seriously,” said Susan Hales, a nurse with the health department.
“Better safe than sorry,” said Robert Tarpey, a social work program manager.
The two people left after the first band of storms, staff said, but the shelter remained open until at least 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in case anyone needed it.
“It doesn’t have to be someone who’s homeless or who is worried about their mobile home,” Smith said. “The one lady who came in was just driving and got scared. That’s what we’re here for.”
And with games, snacks and a secure building, it’s not a bad way to ride out the storm for anyone, Smith said.
“We’re going to be here when people need us, and we’re going to make sure they feel safe and comfortable here as much as we can,” she said. “Weather events like this are unpredictable and scary.”
It’s not always an empty shelter though, Smith said. When the county opened a shelter in Clayton for January ice storms, about 30 people showed up, and since power outages were widespread for extended periods, the shelter remained open over an entire weekend.
“We just come in, set up and ride it out,” said Katie Metcalf, a social worker with DSS.
“We’re here if people need us, and I’d rather that than people not have a place to go,” Smith said. “It’s always better to be safe.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett