Kenly, N.C. — A super-storm cell produced up to five tornadoes, killed two people and damaged homes, as it moved north from Robeson County to Halifax County over several hours early Saturday.
The worst-hit area appeared to be Kenly on the Johnston-Wilson county line.
“This is probably one of the worst disasters that our community has faced. Probably more so than when Hurricanes Fran and Floyd came through and all the support that we have received from our neighboring agencies, from the counties, has been very much appreciated,” Kenly Fire Chief Paul Whitehurst said.
The town suffered "complete devastation," resident Michael Barnes Sr. said. "It looks like a war zone."
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Marylin Gomez, 60, was found dead in the wreckage of her home at 847 Scott Road in the Kenly area, said Lou Hickey, emergency coordinator for Johnston County. A man in the house was transported to WakeMed in Raleigh, and neighbors said he was stable and would be OK.
Next-door neighbor Curt Jernigan said the man came running into his house, looking for help after the tornado passed.
"I remember him saying, 'My house, my family, they're all gone,'" Jernigan said. "That's the worst thing – family loss."
Only pillars from the foundation, a few bricks high, were left of the couples' one-story, concrete-and-brick farmhouse.
"I shined my flashlight over there and went, 'Oh no, it's a war zone,'" Hill said. "I don't know how he got out of it."
Joshua Wiggins, 11, died when his grandparents' home collapsed at 3850 London Church Road in Elm City in Wilson County.
"Something big and black was coming across the field, and I realized it was a tornado," said neighbor Danny Hill, who lives across the street form the house. He and his daughter went to the door after riding out the tornado in a closet.
"I said, 'Well, Livie, it's too dark out here to see anything," he said. "But the reason I couldn't see anything (was) the house was gone."
Hill found Wiggins' grandmother an eighth of a mile down the road, walking back to the house, and the boy's grandfather was crawling out from a ditch. Joshua's body was found in the rubble of the house.
"It's amazing that, loving people as these are, they've not only lost a house, they've lost a child," Hill said.
Joshua attended Toisnot Middle School in Wilson, said Bob Kendall, a spokesman for Wilson County Schools. Joshua went to live with his grandparents after his mother was murdered in 2005. Her murder remains unsolved.
Tornado touchdowns, damage
Stories of survival
An unknown number of people were reported injured in Johnston and Wilson counties, including a family who escaped a collapsed house at N.C. Highway 222 and Scott Road in Kenly.
Winds tore apart the house, and a tree fell into the bedroom where Brittany Stephenson, 19, would have been sleeping. She was treated at Johnston Memorial Hospital and released.
"I think it's divine intervention," said John Axum, a relative who came to help from Newport News, Va.
"I couldn't hear my parents. I yelled their names, and finally they responded," said Brittany's 14-year-old brother, Hunter Stephenson. "I wasn't hurt or anything. God was watching over me."
The tornado that killed Gomez also tore apart a nearby mobile home. Monica Barbee said she, her husband and three children were home when the tornado hit.
"I picked up my 8-year-old and started running to the other end of the house to get my other two (teenage) children," Barbee said. "Before I could get to them, the floor came up under my feet, and the walls started separating."
Barbee's teenage son had a gash on his arm, but the family was otherwise OK, she said.
In Lucama, Jeremy Paul tried to shield his girlfriend and infant daughter from the passing tornado.
“I was covering up my 8-month-old as it was coming through. She was laying in the playroom,” Paul said.
Wilson County Medical Center officials said they had treated three people by Saturday afternoon who suffered minor injuries related to the storm.
Both Wilson and Johnston county authorities said no one was missing and everyone had been accounted for.
EF-1, EF-2, EF-3 tornado reports
The storm cell that produced the tornadoes maintained its intensity for about 80 miles as it tracked north out of South Carolina into Robeson County and along Interstate 95. After two hours of tornado warnings and severe weather, the cell weakened as it entered Halifax County at about 5 a.m.
An EF-1 tornado, with winds up to 90 mph, reportedly touched down in the Meadow community in Johnston County at 2:48 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.
At 3:10 a.m., a EF-2 tornado, packing winds between 130 and 135 mph, touched down southeast of Kenly. The tornado moved northeast into southwest Wilson County, damaging homes along Fab Whitley Road.
A third tornado – an EF-3 with winds up to 145 mph – landed near Elm City at about 3:40 a.m. and moved northeast. Touchdowns were also reported in Benson, Dunn, Lucama and Smithfield.
WRAL Meterologist Mike Maze said the NWS also said two EF-0 tornadoes were reported in the communities of St. Pauls, in Robeson County, at 1:35 a.m. and Clement, in Sampson County, at 2:15 a.m. The EF-0 tornadoes had winds up to 70 mph and produced little damage.
At one point, tornado warnings were also issued for Bertie, Edgecombe, Halifax, Hertford, Nash, Northampton, Sampson and Wayne counties.
Kenly Fire Chief Paul Whitehurst said that his department was called out at about 3:20 a.m. "When we got to the site, we began to realize the magnitude of the situation," he said.
Johnston County activated its mass phone-call notification system between 2:35 and 2:45 a.m. for areas around I-95 and east. The 5-year-old system, which can call up to 2,500 numbers a minute, alerted people to take cover for the tornado.
Like many counties in the area, Wilson does not have such a system and relies on the National Weather Service and media for alerts.
Damage reported in five counties
The worst-hit areas were Johnston and Wilson counties, but damaged homes, barns and stores were also reported in Edgecombe, Robeson and Sampson counties.
About a half-dozen homes were destroyed in Kenly, and many more were damaged, Whitehurst said.
"When I got there, I wasn't prepared for the damage I saw," said Barnes, who went to check on his mother. "These are our neighbors, people we know very well."
Across Wilson County, about 26 homes sustained damage and six homes were destroyed, according to North Carolina Division of Emergency Management manager Elaine Wathen.
The tornado caught a swath of damage from southern to northeastern Wilson, but most of the damage was in the London Church Road area, N.C. Highway 581 and U.S. Highway 301 South.
Although homes in Wilson City escaped damage, at least part of the roof was blown off two businesses.
The roof was ripped off a family-owned paint company, Raymond & Son, at Kenan Street and Raleigh Road Parkway. Half of the roof was blown off Barnes and Powell Electrical Company, 308 Parkview St. West.
In Johnston County, about 30 homes and one business sustained damage during the storm, Wathen said. Seven homes were destroyed.
More than two dozen homes were damaged in the Scott and Bridgers roads area of Johnston County, Hickey said. The damage ranged from destruction to blown-off shingles.
A mobile home reportedly flipped over in Smithfield, and a home was damaged at Woods Crossroads and Five Points Road. A barn was also destroyed there, and trees downed.
Wind damage and debris were reported on 1200 Harnett-Dunn Highway, about 3 miles east-southeast of Dunn. A home and barn were damaged at 4300 Maxwell Road, 9 miles southeast of Godwin. Trees and power lines were down on the road.
Homes, barns and stores were also damaged in Edgecombe, Sampson and Robeson counties.
A possible tornado damaged a mobile home and shop near N.C. Highway 20 and littered debris on Britt Road, south of St. Pauls in Robeson County.
Wind reportedly uprooted a large tree that smashed into a parked vehicle on Draughn Road, 3 miles north of Leggett in Edgecombe County.
At its peak, the storm knocked out power to more than 8,000 people. Power in Wilson and Elm City was restored by Saturday evening. In Johnston County, Progress Energy reported 485 outages as of 10 p.m. and 60 outages in Nash County.
Help for victims
The American Red Cross was organizing relief for storm victims. Donations can be sent to:
American Red Cross
801 S. Third St.
Smithfield, N.C. 27577
Checks should include "Wilson-Johnston tornado" in the memo line to make sure the donation goes directly to the relief effort.