KENLY, N.C. — After a strong storm that spawned up to five tornadoes in and around Johnston and Wilson counties, families and communities began to rally to heal and pick up the pieces.
A super-storm cell produced the tornadoes, which killed two people. The system moved north from Robeson County to Halifax County over several hours early Saturday.
Pablo Rios-Maldonado Sr., a retired construction worker, grabbed his two chainsaws and hit the road after seeing storm damage to Elm City on the Internet.
“We knew there was a need and we need to give back what God has given us,” Rios-Maldonado said. “You feel good because you are helping somebody – that’s the thing.”
Rios-Maldonado was part of a group of strangers that helped clean up Kent and Cheryl Watkins’ yard.
“I can’t even explain it. We are blessed more than we ever thought we were,” Kent Watkins said. “A lot of times you look around and see all the bad – this is good (and) restores faith in people.”
John Axum traveled down from Newport News, Va., to help his family, whose Kenly house was torn apart by winds. His niece, Brittany Stephenson, 19, had to go to Johnston Memorial Hospital, where her mother works.
But while she was there, hospital staff organized a collection and raised $300 to help the family recover and offered the family a place to stay.
"The flow of love and support from this community is unbelievable," Axum said. "Our next battle is, we're going to rebuild these lives."
County and municipal emergency-management operations undertook rescue operations in multiple locations, and officials said they had the situation well in hand.
"Volunteerism here in Kenly has been outstanding, and the emergency people are on top of what's going on," Johnston County Commissioner Cookie Pope said.
Up to 125 emergency personnel, including volunteer firefighters, checked on people in Wilson County. The crews then switched helping lay out tarps over damaged buildings to protect them from further damage.
Several volunteer agencies, including N.C. Baptist Men, had already arrived, ready with their chainsaws to help remove trees and debris.
Two Red Cross teams from Raleigh and Johnston set up a shelter at Kenly Free Will Baptist Church, 107 E. Edgerton St. They helped provide food and shelter for victims. Because the Red Cross is using the church, officials said Sunday school classes and evening services will not be held. The early worship service at 10:30 a.m. will go on as planned.
At least four families from the Kenly area relocated on Saturday afternoon to the nearby Econo Lodge hotel.
Gov. Mike Easley planned to tour the damaged areas on Sunday after local officials finish their assessment and recovery operations.
“I want to express my sympathy to the families who lost loved ones in this damaging storm, as well as my concern for those who were injured, have had homes and property destroyed or damaged," Easley said. "We will do all we can to assist those in the affected areas."
In the meanwhile, Secretary Brian Beatty said the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety has been in touch with local officials.
"As in every disaster, our concern first of all is with the victims," said Elaine Wathen, with North Carolina Emergency Management. "We want to give local responders time to get the initial response in order. We have great confidence in Johnston County Management to do what needs to be done."
Donations for tornado-victim relief 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 this cause.