Sanford, N.C. — Two days after a tornado shrieked through their workplace, leaving one of the most memorable images of Saturday's spate of storms, employees of the Sanford Lowe's Home Improvement store met Monday to plan what to do next.
Nine representatives of the Mooresville-based home improvement chain's Human Resources Department were in Sanford Monday to help the 160 employees of the store at 3015 S. Horner Blvd. with questions about new assignments and Employee Relief Fund applications. Lowe's will maintain an employee hotline and help desk in Lee County through Wednesday at the Sanford Civic Center between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Lowe's plans to rebuild in Sanford, but that timetable is up in the air.
Sanford police Capt. J.R. Weeks credited store manager Michael Hollowell and his employees with saving dozens of lives when they herded customers to the windowless rear area of the store as the storm bore down.
Kathy Hendricks and her husband were regular customers to the home improvement store. "We had just bought a house a month ago," she said.
On Saturday, as the storm approached, they headed to the store for their weekly shopping trip. "We need to get somewhere safe. We're going to Lowe's," she laughed. "Guess what? We were right in the path."
They were among dozens who huddled in the back of the store as the storm destroyed the front of the store.
"We watched it come over the sky and said, 'Yo, this can't be happening to us," said employee Jeff Glenn.
For some employees, the noise as the steel roof tore off resonates days later.
"It's like a bad dream still this morning," one employee said. "You come back this morning, and it really happened."
The front of the store looked as if it had been flattened, and cars in the parking lot were flipped over on their roofs, but no one was seriously injured.
North Carolina officials tallied more than 130 serious injuries, 65 homes destroyed and another 600 significantly damaged by Sunday evening, according to state public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema. Officials expect those totals to climb as damage assessments continue.
Fatalities occurred in Wake, Johnston, Cumberland, Harnett, Lee, Bertie and Bladen counties, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm.
"We're just thankful that more people weren't hurt," said Cindy Hall, a local Red Cross volunteer. Other businesses nearby were also badly damaged, including a tractor supply store which saw its roof ripped off.
Hollowell said he'd heard severe weather warnings earlier in the day, but his first glimpse of imminent danger came when he saw employees running toward the back of the store. The safest part of the store, with joined concrete walls and without heavy inventory stacked high on shelves, it was the destination in an emergency, set in the store's preparedness plan.
Hollowell looked out the front door and saw the tornado nearly across the street. He called his assistants into action on in-store phones and in seconds the warnings had the 50 or so employees and up to 60 customers running to the back, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder.
"One person didn't save all those lives," he said. "It was a team effort."
President Barack Obama called Hollowell Monday to offer his gratitude.