Local News

Easley Issues Disaster Declaration After F-3 Tornado

Posted November 18, 2006

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— As teams of state officials spent the day assessing the damage from a tornado that ripped through this Columbus County community early Thursday, authorities on Friday released the names of the eight people killed by the storm.

Tennell "Ty" Wilson, 29; O'Kenneth Wilson, no age available; Danny Jacobs, 6; and Miguel Martinez, 11, all were pronounced dead at the scene.

Mary Ann Mai, Timithy Mai and EMS volunteer Michael Brown all died en route to Columbus Regional Hospital. Suley Ruiz died en route to Pitt Memorial Hospital.

The storm, which a National Weather Service official Friday categorized as an F-3 tornado, cut a 1-mile path of destruction in the county, ripping through a cluster of mobile homes and an adjacent neighborhood of brick houses shortly after 6:30 a.m. Thursday in Riegelwood, where there are no tornado warning sirens. Officials closed the neighborhood overnight to prevent looting.

"It just looked like it put dynamite under the homes and ignited it," said resident Alton Edwards.

The Fujita Scale classifies an F-3 tornado as severe, with wind speeds between 158 and 206 mph.

Last year, James Keith's building was destroyed by a fire. This year, he had rebuilt it to become a new garage and pool hall. He said he was planning to open it after Thanksgiving, but the tornado left the building in shambles.

"I plan to rebuild back, probably. I may as well," he said.

Friday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Dole toured the destruction left by the tornado. She said she had seen the images on television and wanted to help.

"I've been in touch with all of the folks like FEMA and NOAA and so on, and your heart just breaks for families that lost so much here, and we want to help out in every way we can," she said.

Gov. Mike Easley took an aerial tour of the damage Friday afternoon. He said 100 people are homeless, and the state is working to find them new places to live.

Later Friday, he declared Columbus County a state disaster area, as well as requesting and receiving a U.S. Small Business Administration disaster declaration that makes low interest loans available for repairs.

Applications for state grants or SBA loans can be made at the Riegelwood Baptist Church beginning Saturday at 12 noon. Citizens can also call toll-free at 1-800-659-2955 to apply for an SBA loan.

Hours after the storm hit, Tomeka Jenkins was allowed to return to what was left of her home. The walls and roof were gone, and the exposed green carpeting was covered in debris -- broken bunk beds, an artificial Christmas tree, clothing, two teddy bears.

Across the street, an aluminum ladder hung from a tree.

"Other than what I have on, this is all I have, right in front of me," Jenkins said Thursday as crews worked to restore electricity to nearby homes spared by the storm.

Jenkins, 29, and her three children were among the storm's survivors. She said some of her neighbors were among those killed.

The tornado was part of a devastating line of thunderstorms that swept across the South on Wednesday and Thursday and killed 12 people.

Riegelwood is a small town on the Cape Fear River about 20 miles west of coastal Wilmington. Edwina Wilson said she lost two of her cousins.

"I couldn't believe it. I'm still in shock that both of them are gone. I can't believe they're both gone," she said.

Five people were taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. Three were listed in fair condition and two others in serious condition. Four children also were taken to hospitals.

Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten said authorities ended their search Thursday night and had accounted for everyone. Batten said several of the dead were found within 200 yards of where the tornado touched down.

"We assume they were literally consumed by the tornado," he said.

The storms began Wednesday, unleashing tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned mobile homes and tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines across the South.

In Louisiana, a man died Wednesday when a tornado struck his home. In South Carolina, a utility worker checking power lines Thursday during the storm was electrocuted. Elsewhere in North Carolina, two people died in car crashes as heavy rain pounded the state, dropping as much as five inches in some areas.

Off the coast, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a pump to a fishing boat that was taking on water in 15-foot seas about 50 miles from Charleston, S.C. One crewman was aboard the 34-foot boat, which the Coast Guard escorted back to land.

When the tornado struck Riegelwood just after 6:30 a.m. Thursday, residents learned of the storm from radio and television reports.

"There was no warning. There was no time," said Cissy Kennedy, a radiologist's assistant who lives in the area. "It just came out from nowhere."

As many as 40 mobile homes were damaged before the tornado crossed a highway and leveled three brick homes. About 100 people were left homeless by the storm, and dozens planned to sleep at a shelter established at a nearby elementary school.

Household debris, including carpet and a laundry basket, was scattered along a road. A minivan lay in a ditch, and an open refrigerator with food inside had filled with rainwater.

County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs said several mobile homes were demolished, and there were "houses on top of cars and cars on top of houses."

The storm knocked out power to 45,000 customers in North Carolina, but the electricity was back on in most places by mid-afternoon Thursday.

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