One could say Andi Emrick and her husband are lucky. They were on Ocracoke Island when a tornado tore through Raleigh last April, tossing two old oak trees on top of their home.
They were fortunate; the house wasn’t. The $80,000 in damages took nearly eight months to fix.
Although you could say things are back to normal — or better — some days, it doesn’t feel like home, she said.
“It didn’t feel like home. It was definitely … maybe it’s because the house is more empty than it was before,” she said. “Anything I didn’t like about it before, I got to change so I’m thankful for that.
But it’s definitely a different feeling.”
It’s a story you’ll hear from more than one person one year after the EF3 tornado blew through downtown. On Raleigh April 16, 2011 the storm forged a northeast path along South Saunders Street, past Shaw University and out toward the eastern Wake suburbs.
Zoom in to see damage to individual properties.
Yellow: minor damage
Red: major damage
It only lasted a few minutes. When it was over, more than 63 Raleigh homes were destroyed. More than 184 homes had suffered major damage; another 851 had minor damage. Thousands of trees were damaged or down. One city business was wiped out.
In Raleigh Kevin Coronado, 3, Osvaldo Coronado, 8, and 9-year-old Daniel Quistan Nino lost their lives when the tornado ripped through a mobile home park. A fourth child, 6-month-old Yaire Quistian Nino, died a few days later of injuries sustained during the storm.
63 single-family homes were destroyed.
184 homes suffered major damage occurred
851 homes suffered minor damage
1 business destroyed
11 suffered major damage
22 suffered minor damage
Source: City of Raleigh Department of Inspections surveys
Now, a year later, most of the pieces are put back together. Sort of.
Curt Willis, Raleigh’s deputy director of inspections, said all commercial damage is cleaned up.
“Everyone that we know of has gotten permits or is in plan to get permits to fix what was damaged during the tornado,” he said. “Everyone’s done a great job cleaning up and getting the permits and going back to work and repairing the damage.”
The commercial business that was wiped out was Earp’s Seafood. When it reopened Jan. 20, lines stretched out the door. People turned out in droves to support the small business that had become the symbol of the tornado’s destruction.
“It was like the President was coming through,” said Nancy Earp Salmon, whose father, Herbert, and mother, Mary, built the seafood shop 44 years ago. “The parking lot was full. There was lines around the building. You just wanted to bust out crying that people really care.”
Since then, things have been fantastic, she said.
“I said, ‘the Lord took it away,’ but He sure brought back twice as much,” she said.
The day of the tornado, she was worried more about her husband than the store itself.
“My daughter works for 911 and she called me and she says, ‘Momma, tell Daddy there is a tornado headed within three to four minutes at Earp’s and it’s going to hit there,’” Salmon explained. “And he had customers and everything. But I called him and he acted like he didn’t believe me.’”
Salmon stayed safely at home.
“My husband was in Vietnam and he said, ‘This was worse than Vietnam.’ So it had to be pretty bad. Of course with age when we get older we’re more fearful and that might have been the reason. But he told me ‘I got a purple heart. I got shot in Vietnam … but it wasn’t nothing like what I experienced here.’”
“And usually he doesn’t make comments like that,” she said.
In the following days, Salmon couldn’t bring herself to view the wreckage of her parents’ dream.
“My daughter came and they took pictures and brought back to show me,” she said. “To be honest with you, emotionally, I don’t think I even wanted to come. I really truly didn’t. It was several days before I came. But I could not bring myself to come because to me it was like part of my parents had blown away.”
For her, the bigger nightmare came in the nine months that followed, dealing with insurance. From paperwork to building codes, the whole process was “a pain in the butt,” she said.
“If anybody had told me it was this hard to deal with, I would not have believed them,” she said. “It taught me a lot.”
Although at first it seemed like they might have to tear the entire building down, three walls remain of the original Earp’s Seafood. For her, that’s enough to keep the heart and soul of the true Earp’s — her home — intact.
“That’s part of my momma and daddy,” Salmon said. “It does have a part of them still alive here. They’ll always be Earp’s Seafood.”
While Earp’s and other businesses have recovered, there’s still some work to be done on single-family homes, according to Ashley Glover, housing inspections administrator. Three tornado affected properties will go before council May 1 for demolition approval, he said, and a few more have approval already but have yet to be razed.
“It’s still a challenge in some of the worst-hit areas, especially down around the Millbury Road area where it got hit,” he said. “The majority of the properties have either been demolished or repaired. This is probably our last big group.”
Houses are given a demolition order if more than 50 percent of the value of the property is damaged. Glover estimates about 22 houses were demolished due to the tornado, not including those still awaiting the work.
Although Emrick’s house on Glascock Street wasn’t demolished, you’d have a tough time guessing so after its complete transformation.
“It was so surreal,” she said, of hearing about the tornado. “I’m one of the people who likes weather, and part of me wishes I was here to experience it. Which is a terrible thing to say.”
Emrick said she and her husband still have some furnishings to replace and some landscaping work. She isn’t sure what they’ll do about that part yet, considering the trees that fell on her house.
She’d had a bad feeling about the trees from the start when she moved in two years ago.
“Ever since we’ve owned the home, I’ve had continual dreams about the trees … about them falling on the house,” she said. After the tornado, Emrick got a tattoo of two trees wound together on her leg to commemorate the event.
Impact on the City of Oaks
Trees were certainly one of the most numerous victims of the storm. The City of Oaks lost more than 1,230 trees, said Sally Thigpen, Raleigh’s urban forester. There are still some trees that need to be removed on state-maintained roads in the city, but for the most part, removal is done.
“We’ve taken care of the hazardous limbs and streets rights of way and our public properties,” she said. The entire process, Thigpen said, “ended up taking us about eights months with the cemeteries folded in.”
Parks and Greenways – 620
Street Rights of Way – 370
Historic Cemeteries – 240
Total = 1,230
Another 2,855 trees had removals or pruning work.
Those that remain still need some aesthetic pruning, something urban foresters aren’t paid to manage.
Thigpen said skilled arborists need to go clean them up, not only for appearance but to trim any limbs that remain open to infection and disease. Such limbs could eventually cause problems in the future, she said.
Her team of eight field arborists is responsible for all tree maintenance in the city: 1,100 miles of street right of way, 9,000 acres of parks, about 63 miles of greenways and all the city cemeteries and properties.
They had a big job after the tornado trashed the trees. In some parts of Raleigh, downed limbs blocked streets and wrecked havoc with power lines.
“It was pretty intense. We were working 12 to 14 hours days for a good five, six weeks,” Thigpen said. “Fortunately we were prepared for it.”
The city uses a contractor who is on standby to help with such emergencies. Crews worked for 72 hours on the “cut and shove” jobs to open the streets. Then they began prioritizing the rest of the mess, which was mostly limited to one area of the city.
“In the end, it happened so fast,” she said. “I think we kind of realized how isolated the path of that storm when it happened. It was really dramatic where the path was. But the rest of Raleigh just didn’t.”
Now, she’s slowly working on replanting those lost trees. Last year, Raleigh earned the Siemens Sustainable Community Award, a $20,000 grant for tree planting. The city also held a special tree planting event last fall, adding 200 trees along Chavis Park and Chavis Way, and area neighborhoods.
Still, the three historic cemeteries are noticeably less shady. Mt. Hope, O’Roarke and City Cemetery lost 240 trees, most of which have not been replaced. That loss is a huge hit, Thigpen said, because many of those trees were 80 or 100 years old.
And planting new trees is tricky. She’s consulting with the Historic Advisory Board to make sure the new plantings don’t interfere with graves.
Thigpen said the tornado provided a good learning experience.
“It was one of my first big storms. I don’t want to say storms are a good experience. It’s not something I’d want to repeat,” she said. “But the city is doing a lot of work internally to make sure we’re ready … to give our citizen the service they expect and the help they need in a disaster like that.”
Not everyone was so prepared. In her dorm room at Shaw University, Andrea Williams didn’t think much about the winds picking up outside.
Williams was gathering supplies to work on a paper down the hall with friends.
“I just noticed the skies went from clear to cloudy in … it had to be less than 10 seconds literally,” she said. “After that it started raining really hard. I didn’t think nothing of it. I call North Carolina’s weather bipolar anyway.”
But suddenly, the weather changed.
“It went from raining really hard to wind. Everything just happened so fast,” she said. “The wind just started blowing really hard. The window would not close at all. It was almost taking me with it. The lights started flickering in my room and went out. And at that moment that’s when I realized it was serious.”
Williams started knocking on doors in her dorm to alert people. And as she walked down the hall, “the window blew out and a tree came flying in, which was frightening for me because it felt like the tree was coming for me.”
Twenty-seven buildings suffered damage.
Six buildings had roofs that were either fully or partially replaced:
Dimple Newsome Residence Hall
Fleming-Kee Residence Hall
Willie E. Gary Student Center
People began screaming, and everyone headed to huddle in the bathroom, she said. Williams, a senior in mass communications from New York, was not used to tornado weather. Neither were many of her dormmates.
“It was chaos. It was just crazy,” she said. “It was a scene out of a movie. At that moment you saw your life before your eyes. It was that serious. It was people crying everywhere. It was really bad. I never experienced anything like that before.”
Shaw University closed after that, two weeks shy of the semester’s end.
Odessa Hines, director of public relations for Shaw University, said now, things are “mostly” back to normal. Twenty-seven buildings on campus sustained some sort of damage, the bulk of it evident in roofs and windows.
“We are pretty much done with all the repair work,” she said. “The last piece of it is the Willie E. Gary Student Center. It was hit the hardest by the tornado.”
The Student Center’s main floor opened in December, restoring cafeteria services to students, who had been dining in FEMA trailers. Hines said work on the student center’s basement and top floors is nearly complete.
Hines said the tornado affected more than just Shaw’s buildings. After the storm, Shaw’s fall 2011 enrollment dropped by about 200 students, out of an average 2,500.
“The tornado definitely impacted us quite a bit in terms of our enrollment,” Hines said. “Once the tornado hit, so many students that were thinking about coming thought, ‘there’s no way they’re going to be ready.’”
Williams said she can understand why. Her parents offered her the option of not returning to the scene of what was such a scary experience.
“There was a lot of people that were like, ‘I’m not coming back. We don’t know the type of conditions we’ll have to deal with,’” she said.
But for her, Shaw had become a home away from home.
“I love Shaw. I’ve already been here and I can’t let this tornado take me off my path,” she said. “I might as well just finish. A lot of people are so surprised … I know that people thought it was close [to closing] after that ordeal. We’re fine up here. We’re family. Every family has its ups and downs … but we stick together. That’s what produces Shaw’s family. We’re a bunch a fighters. We don’t stop.”
Hines hopes someday to return enrollment back to its average of 2,500. Meanwhile, Shaw will host an open house event April 16 to commemorate not only the tornado, but the hard work that went into putting Shaw back together.
Shaw University will host an “Open House” event on the steps of the Willie E. Gary Student Center to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Raleigh tornado. During the event, the university will officially re-open the Willie E. Gary Student Center, the building most damaged during the tornado.
Monday, April 16
Willie E. Gary Student Center
118 E. South Street
Shaw University Campus
“The biggest testament is to the volunteer community. So many people pitched in to help the campus get ready in the fall,” Hines said. “[We need to] let everyone know we’re back in business.”
And maybe that’s the biggest highlight one year after the storm — pieces put back together, even if home now feels a little bit different.
“For the most part we’re back to normal,” Williams said. “Now it’s almost like … I mean, you’ll never forget the moments it happened. You’ll never forget the way it made you feel.”
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