Roanoke Rapids city center demolished and in the dark

Posted April 19, 2011 7:07 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2011 8:01 p.m. EDT

— Power was out for the third straight day Tuesday in the downtown commercial district of Roanoke Rapids after Saturday's tornado as business owners assessed damage and looked to rebuild.

Buildings constructed with brick and cinder block and reinforced with steel beams were completely blown apart.

Buddy Strickland's real estate, insurance, plumbing and construction business on Park Avenue crumbled to "nothing but bricks and sticks."

"It's unbelievable that things could happen in that length of time – just seconds," he said. "We're not talking about minutes. We're talking about seconds."

Strickland is working to salvage whatever he can from the rubble and plans to rebuild his business from the ground up at another location. 

"(There's) nothing we can do. We're not in control of nature," Strickland said. "God was looking out for us and all these people around us."

No one was killed in Halifax County, and there were only four reports of minor injuries in the city of Roanoke Rapids, officials said.

Also on Park Avenue, the roof was ripped off and the back wall exploded at the Employment Securities Commission office. Manager Tommy McKnight said he felt personally connected to the demolished building.

"It's very discouraging and disheartening because it feels like part of my life is in it because I spent 24 years working in it," McKnight said.

He said the ESC is confident that it will be able to retrieve all the paperwork and records that were stored there because most information is backed up electronically. The commission plans to open a temporary office in the city later this week.

Across the street, Bob Wrenn's photo business had employees inside the building Saturday, but the former bank was equipped with a super secure hiding place – a vault.

Wrenn and his wife were listening to storm coverage on the radio at Bob's One Hour Photo when they heard what sounded like a jet engine.

"It started getting really loud and she said, 'I think we should move into the vault' and you should always listen to your wife," Wrenn said. "We had just gotten in and both turned around and the drop ceiling lifted up and two windows exploded at the same time."

Wrenn said glass shattered everywhere and the side of the building and the store facade were completely torn off. The only thing left standing was the vault.

"We always joked that if we ever had a tornado and the building was destroyed, just start digging for the vault because that's where we'd be, and that's exactly where we went," he said.

According to preliminary numbers released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seven homes in the area were destroyed, 15 had major damage and another 37 were affected by the storm.

FEMA has not released data on damage to businesses.

Roanoke Rapids city officials plan to release their own damage numbers Wednesday because they said FEMA’s data was incomplete.