EF-3 tornado kills 3, causes extensive damage in Brunswick County

Posted February 16, 2021 4:04 a.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2021 12:11 p.m. EST

— At least three people died when an EF-3 tornado touched down in Brunswick County before midnight, ripping through one neighborhood and leaving a trail of destruction.

Gov. Roy Cooper will tour the Ocean Ridge Plantation neighborhood near Ocean Isle Beach on Wednesday, where more than 50 homes were damaged and three deaths and at least 10 injuries were reported.

The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office said the tornado touched down Monday in the area of Seaside Road and U.S. Highway 17 between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. It was on the ground for about 30 minutes.

"I saw devastation I have not seen in many years," Randy Thompson, chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said during a noon news conference. "Truly this was a disaster last night."

While authorities haven't identified the storm victims, Rob O'Connor of Glendale, Ariz., posted on Facebook that two were his father and stepmother, Richard and Phyllis O'Connor.

Edward Conrow, Brunswick County's emergency services director, said search and rescue efforts were completed Tuesday morning, and officials were conducting damage assessments.

Damage reports also included gas leaks, damaged commercial buildings and downed trees and power lines along U.S. 17 and Old Shallotte Road, Conrow said.

The National Weather Service confirmed the twister was an EF-3 tornado with winds up to 160 mph. It carved a path across Brunswick County and into Columbus County, officials said.

"I've ridden out hurricanes before. This was above and beyond anything like a hurricane," said Andy Roszak, who hid in a closet with his wife and their 3-week-old daughter.

The tornado was particularly dangerous because many people were sleeping when the storm hit and had no time to prepare, Conrow said.

"We had very minimal warning," he said, noting the storm was already on the ground by the time the Weather Service alerted local authorities. "[Weather Service meteorologists] were very surprised at how rapidly this storm intensified. That's something they normally don't see."

"There wasn't a heck of a lot of time," Roszak agreed. "The wind started picking up and started howling and shaking the house."

After the storm, he spent the night trying to help his neighbors by flashlight and then continued doing so for much of Tuesday.

"It was surreal to come that close to a potentially catastrophic event for myself and my family," he said. "It really gave you pause."

Roszak lived down the street from the husband and wife who were killed. He described them as a "lovely" couple whose home was leveled by the tornado.

"I don't think the magnitude of the situation has set in quite yet," he said. "Like any other tragedy, you get closer to the the neighbors that you have and the friends that you have and lean on each other for strength.

"Obviously, we're not going to forget this day anytime soon," he added. "But looking at the state of the neighborhood this morning, I think everyone would no doubt agree this could have been much, much worse."

Tim Smith knows that's true. The tornado went right over his grandfather's home, snapping off trees and punching a hole in the roof but causing no other damage.

"He's lucky it didn't come through the house," Smith said while repairing the roof.

Kate Gentle, who lives five minutes from where the tornado touched down, said she spent Monday evening at her son's lacrosse game and had no idea there was going to be a storm.

When the family got home, they experienced heavy thunder and lightning. Then, Gentle said, everything got quiet. She put her children in a closet right before the tornado warning came through.

"You could tell something wasn't right," she said.

Gentle's family and home escaped harm, but she said she was "heartbroken" for people in her community who weren't as lucky.

Rev. Dwight Reeves, pastor of Seaside Christian Fellowship, prayed for those who lost their lives and homes. The storm ripped the roof off of his church.

"It’s life-changing," Reeves said of the storm. "You know things in life like this happen, but you never expect it to actually show up at your door this time. We always see other people with destruction in the neighborhood. Now, to see it, I have more compassion for those folks."

Church member Scott Blackmon went to help clean up Tuesday morning after escaping unharmed during the night.

"The wind and the thunder increased with the lightning, and we lost power," said Blackmon, who lives less than a mile from the church. "We heard the roar, and we literally jumped in the tub like you hear about on TV."

Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram asked people who aren't property owners or who aren't assisting victims to avoid the area as crews work to clear streets.

Conrow said the sheriff's office would set up access points to keep non-residents out of the Ocean Ridge area.

Corey Thurlow with Brunswick Electric Membership Corp. said the storm’s strength caused extensive damage to the county's transmission system by toppling poles and trees, affecting about 35,000 customers at its peak.

The number affected by outages was down to about 3,000 by noon Tuesday.

"Our priority is to restore power to all of our members across our service area as quickly and safely as possible," Thurlow said. "Our thoughts are with the individuals who have suffered loss as a result of these storms."

About 140,000 people were estimated to live in Brunswick County in 2019, according to the US Census.

The storm was part of the larger weather system that is bringing brutally cold temperatures to much of the U.S., including a paralyzing ice storm that has walloped Texas, causing massive power outages.

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