A Month After Tornado, Some Families Remain in Limbo

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — It’s been over a month since a tornado tore through southeastern Brunswick County.

In Ocean Ridge Plantation, the neighborhood that bore the brunt of the storm damage, some homeowners remain in limbo.

Carol Phillips and her husband Sidney – who also goes by Phil – are still waiting to see if they’ll need to rebuild. That depends on whether the storm damaged their home’s foundation. A damaged foundation means the house will be condemned.

But after inspections from three structural engineers, they still don’t have answers.

There’s `More Damage Than We Thought’

“When you look at our house from the outside, it doesn’t look like it’s that bad,” Carol Phillips said. “There’s a lot more damage than we thought.”

The couple has moved to a furnished condo nearby and are in the process of packing up the home’s contents for storage.

Diane and Mike Keywan – the Phillips’ neighbors – knew minutes after the tornado blew through that they would have to rebuild.

As the couple heard the tornado approaching, they ran from their bedroom to a windowless half-bathroom at the center of the house. They felt debris pelting the bathroom door as they sheltered inside.

When the storm passed, the couple emerged to find significant damage.

“The roof above us was gone and the kitchen had a gaping hole in it,” Diane Keywan said.

At first, they didn’t know how bad things were until Sidney Phillips walked through the debris with a flashlight to check on them. He saw the hole in the home’s roof and told the couple they needed stay the night next door.

In the following days, the house was condemned. An orange sheet of paper taped to the front door marks the home as “unsafe.”

A month later, the Keywans are still waiting for approval from their insurance company to demolish the home and start rebuilding. They are living out of a condo in North Myrtle Beach and are interviewing builders for the project.

Diane Keywan said she wishes the process would move more quickly. The debris and damage that still dots Ocean Ridge Plantation is a constant reminder of the traumatic event.

“It’s unfortunate because this community is trying to move forward and heal and start again,” she said. “Looking at this is just a reminder.”

The Red Cross closed out its last case from the tornado earlier this month, but the organization remains in touch with several families, including those who lost loved ones in the storm, said James Jarvis, the executive director of the American Red Cross of Eastern North Carolina.

Catholic Charities will oversee cases long term, Jarvis said.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Red Cross assisted 13 families – a total of 45 people – in planning their next steps. That included finding a place to live, figuring out what their insurance would cover and replacing lost medications and medical equipment.

While most of the families in Ocean Ridge Plantation had insurance to pay for housing while they were displaced from their homes, some living on the other side of U.S. 17 along Green Bay and Old Shallotte Road did not, Jarvis said.

All of the displaced families have found permanent housing, he added.

The Red Cross also provided mental health services. Some victims suffered from “survivor’s guilt” because they lived through the tornado while friends or family members died, Jarvis said.

For others, it impacted their feeling of safety.

“A tornado is such an unexpected phenomena,” Jarvis said. “It comes out of nowhere with very little warning and so it does for some people make it hard for them to feel safe in their own homes when the next storm rolls through.”

The Strongest Tornado On Record

Crews from the North Carolina Department of Transportation are almost finished clearing roadside vegetative and construction debris, said Ed Conrow, the director of Brunswick County Emergency Services. In Ocean Ridge Plantation, there are still small mounds of construction debris in front of some of the damaged homes.

Cleaning up from a tornado posed different challenges than the hurricanes and tropical storms the county has dealt with in the past, Conrow said.

Hurricanes typically affect a wide area and leave behind flooding, erosion and water damage. Tornados, in contrast, hit an isolated area and leave debris and home damage in their path, Conrow said.

The storm itself was unusual for the Carolinas, according to Steven Pfaff, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

The tornado was the strongest in Brunswick County since the county began keeping records in the 1950s.

Its path was approximately 275 yards wide. That’s more than three times wider than average tornadoes in North or South Carolina. Most have a width of 80 yards or less, Pffaf wrote in an email to the StarNews.

The tornado’s path stretched for 22 miles. Typically, tornados in the Carolinas cover about three miles, according to Pfaff.

Remembering Those Who Lost Their Lives

The tornado caused varying degrees of damage to approximately 60 homes.

There were at least 10 people injured in the tornado. Of the injured who were hospitalized, all were released within a week of the storm, Conrow said.

Memorial services have been held for all three storm victims. A funeral mass was held for Barry Glick on March 1. A memorial service for Phyllis and Richard O’Connor was held on Saturday.

Former students and colleagues are organizing a memorial fund to commemorate Glick, who taught seventh grade social studies and science at Brightwood Elementary School in Monterey Park, California for more than 30 years.

The money will be given to teachers at the school to fund field trips and other extracurricular activities, said Bill Yee, a member of the Alhambra Teachers Association.

Glick made an effort to introduce his students to new things outside of the classroom.

“He used to take kids to the symphony or the opera,” Yee said. “He supplemented the educational program for a lot of these kids.”

`Things Are Going To Be Okay’

Following the storm, Brunswick County residents have been generous in giving back to those affected.

Tammy Blanton, the owner of Beach Happy Market in Ocean Isle Beach, started organizing relief efforts for victims soon after the tornado touched down.

She started small but her efforts continued to grow as donations poured in. She raised more than $11,000 in cash and gift cards, which she gave out to families with damaged homes, she said.

Carol Phillips and Diane Keywan said they are impressed with the response from the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, local fire departments and the entire community.

“This community has shown its true colors through its hardest moments,” Diane Keywan said.

In Ocean Ridge Plantation, some signs of normalcy have returned to the community. The golf course re-opened weeks ago, workers are working to repair some of the damaged homes, and flowers have started blooming in the neighborhood.

That’s encouraging to Carol Phillips.

“I have flowers blooming, and it’s awesome,” she said. “This is God’s promise that things are going to be okay for us, at least that’s the way I feel.’

About the photo: Law enforcement personnel look over a destroyed house in Rieglewood, N.C., on Friday, Nov. 17, 2006, after a tornado struck the area on Thursday. (AP Photo/Wilmington Star-News, Mark Courtney)