It took just three seconds for John Simmons and his family to lose their home in one of at least 15 tornadoes that swept across South Carolina last weekend.
On March 15, as winds downed trees and ripped the roof off the two-story home the family built and lived in for just two years, Simmons, his wife and two sons rushed downstairs to a bathroom for shelter. That’s when Simmons, the last to enter the room, heard a “big roaring noise.”
“The tornado hit,” Simmons said. “It blew me across the kitchen into the living room and sucked that (kitchen) window out. I got into the bathroom and closed the door. In about three seconds it was over.”
But it could take days – even weeks – for state officials to clear debris and complete an assessment of the damage left by the severe storms. Preliminary reports Monday showed a total of 501 homes statewide damaged, with 68 of them destroyed, said state Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker.
No one was killed in the storms in South Carolina.
Insurers estimate property damage at $13 million and that figure should rise as adjusters assess more damage this week, according to the South Carolina Insurance News Service.
More than 900 South Carolinians were still without power Monday evening.
The National Weather Service confirmed at least 15 tornadoes in South Carolina over the weekend. Twisters that hit near Prosperity and Branchville were rated EF-3, with winds up to 165 mph. Most of the rest were considered weaker tornadoes, with winds under 110 mph.
Gov. Mark Sanford joined state emergency management officials Monday to survey damage in South Carolina. Businesses and homeowners in Kershaw, Orangeburg and Berkeley counties will likely be eligible for low-interest government loans, but state officials must first access the damage, Sanford said.
“To have a home taken from you in the middle of the night is, at worst, debilitating and, at best, an absolute tragedy,” Sanford said.
Homeowners like Charles Cacace, of Elgin, said they aren’t waiting for state or local authorities to help. Cacace said he has spent the last few nights protecting homes in his neighborhood against looters.
“We’ve had people looting so I’ve had to sit out here all night with a shotgun,” said Cacace, adding that he’s had to run people off the properties around his home. “The sun wasn’t shining the next day before people were back in there.”
Not all the homes were damaged in Simmons’ neighborhood, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Columbia. A nearby home was severely damaged and a neighbor injured when it was lifted off its foundation. A home beside Simmons’ received only minimal damage to a garage door and the roof.
“It hit his house, crossed the top of mine and then landed on this side of the house and hit the ground over here,” Simmons said.
Simmons spent Monday clearing downed trees and picking up personal items that had been sent flying during the tornado. The family is staying at a local hotel for a week, but after that Simmons is not sure what they will do.
“I don’t think it (his home) is livable,” he said. “It’s destroyed.”
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