Local News

Moving on after tornadoes isn't easy for Dunn survivors

Posted April 16, 2012 7:32 p.m. EDT
Updated April 17, 2012 7:19 a.m. EDT

— On April 16, 2011, a tornado tore the roof off Wrench's Dunn home and knocked out one side of the house he had lived in for 48 years.

Home alone at the time, Wrench, 71, was struck by an air conditioner that the strong winds had torn from a window. Part of the ceiling collapsed on him as well.

Amazingly, he survived.

Every house on his street – Carroll Byrd Lane – was also destroyed, including the house that Stanley and Sherry Baker called home for 43 years.

Thirty tornadoes touched down across North Carolina that day – a single-day record for the state.

Twenty-four people died, and damage estimates topped $328 billion.

A year later, many of the victims, like Wrench and the Bakers, are still struggling.

A municipal roadblock

Wrench, who has been back in his home for several months, is still having trouble rebuilding his work shed and garage – where he spent most of his time before the tornado.

For months, he worked to save the nearly $6,700 he needed to buy a new garage, and he says he talked to numerous people within the city and county about rebuilding it before he paid to have the foundation laid in the same place the garage sat for more than three decades.

"They told me I was grandfathered in," Wrench said. "I thought I was doing right, and that's the reason I went and bought my building."

But the city says he apparently didn't talk to the right people, and when he recently went to get his permit to rebuild, he was denied. Dunn ordinance requires he set his garage 25 feet from the property line.

Wrench says that would mean he would have to pour more cement – something he says is not only costly but an outrageous request for someone who has suffered hardship.

"Ninety percent of what I had in my house, I lost," he said. "Now they want me to spend about $4,500 to put another slab of cement out here."

Other homeowners have since rebuilt similar garages and storage sheds and have complied with the ordinance.

But Wrench says his land backs up against a field and that there are no homeowners behind him. His building was there for 38 years and was set back 6 feet, which was appropriate at the time.

He can apply for a variance, but the fee to do so is $500, and there's no guarantee that the local Board of Adjustment would decide in his favor.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. I really don't," he said. "I just hate to have that cement right there and can't put my building back on it after it was there for 38 years."

The emotional scars

The Bakers are facing a different type of struggle. Like Wrench, the couple was home when the tornado hit. They and their daughter crouched in a hallway while the strong winds ripped through their house.

"I mean, I really thought all of us were going to die," Sherry Baker recalled Monday. "I said we're all going to die together."

They vowed never to return to Carroll Byrd Lane, but the emotional scars of that day are still very fresh, and trying to resume a normal life has been a challenge.

In the aftermath of the tornado, the family suffered a few setbacks along their path to recovery. Sherry Baker was diagnosed with cancer – today she's cancer-free – Stanley Baker had to have his knees replaced, and the family suffered another devastating loss when her daughter's home was destroyed by fire.

"It's been a year. We still don't – we're here in our new home. We love our new home, but our life is still not together. Period," Sherry Baker said.

The couple chuckles now about that April day, but the fear is still there.

"When a bad storm comes up, she's ready to roll," Stanley Baker said of his wife.

"It didn't take me overnight to get 43 years, and I don't think I can get my life back to normal (in just a year)," Sherry Baker said. "You don't ever get it back, anyway."