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ELM CITY — When Tara Jones heard the tornado warning, she gathered her husband and their 10 children downstairs in their Elm City home.
“We took all of the children, and we put them in the hall,” Jones said. “We heard a big boom. It was like an explosion. The wind picked up real quick.”
Outside, the swirling storm knocked down trees on all four sides of their home and dozens of other houses in town Monday morning.
After the tornado passed, Jones stood in her yard with her hand over her mouth, gasping.
“Oh my God. It is our biggest tree in our yard. It uprooted and landed in our front yard, and we cannot even see our front yard from the window,” Jones said.
Jones thrust her arms in the air and looked upward, proclaiming, “Thank you, Lord. Hallelujah for his mercy. I thank God.”
She credits divine intervention with sparing her children, ages 3 to 14.
“We got some damage to the roof a little bit, but it could have been worse,” Jones said. “We have children that are shaken up. My daughter Layla was crying a little bit. I thank God. He saved our entire family.”
According to Jason Cain, assistant chief with the Toisnot Rural Fire Department, between 30 and 50 houses in town had some degree of damage from falling trees and wind.
“We were toned out to trees down in the area of Lynhaven Drive and Leo Drive,” Cain said. “When we came through town, there were several trees down on Barnes Street and Main Street, and when we got over here to Leo Drive and Nash Street, there were several trees down across the road and on houses.”
Crews started clearing debris from the road and checked on residents in their houses. A National Guard unit, already in the area because of Hurricane Florence, pitched in.
No injuries were reported, and the tornado didn’t leave any residents trapped inside their homes.
“We did have a lady that we think got a little overheated, and we did have EMS come check her out,” Cain said.
A tree fell on the railroad tracks, but CSX took care of that.
Damage was contained to an area inside Elm City from Parker Street toward Nash Street and down toward Staton Lane, with many trees down on Anderson, Dixon, Barnes and Wilson streets and American Legion Lane.
A large pine tree had a dead aim when it fell into the center of Bud Pittman’s house on Barnes Street. He, his wife and his grandson were in the house when the twister came through around 7 o’clock as Pittman was busy getting dressed.
“We had plenty of warning,” Pittman said. “We listened to the radio. We had the telephone warning, and we had friends calling us.”
“My wife and I planted those pine trees 43 years ago when we got married. They were knee-high way back then,” Pittman said.
The weight of a fully mature tree fell on the home Monday morning.
“My roof and all the ceiling and everything is crushed,” Pittman said. “I’ve got some major structural damage, but we’re safe, so the house is secondary.”
Kelly Farmer saw the tornado as it headed into Elm City from the loading dock at Central Freight Lines about a mile outside of town.
“We walked outside onto our dock, and we saw a large swirling cloud over the tree line going kind of down the train tracks from Wilson back into Elm City,” Farmer said. “I knew that it would probably cause some damage because it was a massive-size tornado. It went right down the railroad tracks right into down.
“It was a pretty impressive sight to see, and I feel sorry for the people who were in its path and all of the destruction and stuff that it caused on their property and personal life.”
Farmer estimates the storm’s path stretched a quarter-mile.
“I really couldn’t see the actual touchdown. From what we could see, the cloud itself was pretty wide,” Farmer said. “It was fairly slow-moving.”
Farmer watched the twister for about 30 seconds before it went out of sight.
“It was loud when it came through here,” said Jerry Draper, whose brother, Danny Draper, had his pickup truck damaged by a falling tree on Main Street.
“We’re just lucky that were didn’t have more down than we did,” Danny Draper said.
Marie Harris’ husband, Lashawn Williams, warned the family to prepare for the storm just before a tree fell on their Main Street home.
“He saw it coming and said to get down,” Harris recalled. The couple’s two 16-year-old sons, John Hall and Jayquon Mercer, took cover as a tree fell.
“When I heard the booms, that’s when I woke up,” Hall said.
Across Main Street, Chase Williams and his father, Harold Williams, own a rental home where several large trees in a row were knocked flat by the tornado’s winds.
“We’re just lucky ’cause every one of these trees would have gone over the house, but they went into the empty lot,” said Chase Williams, a volunteer fireman.
The tornado sheared part of the roof off Christie Combs’ Barnes Street home.
“We’re all turned around now,” she said — somewhat distressed as she left the scene.
Her son, Christopher Combs, was fascinated by the mangled and twisted trunk of an old cedar tree that was smashed into toothpicks.
“That tree is all messed up, that tree right there,” Christopher Combs said. “It was a tree right there, and it fell on the clothesline.”
“It’s not what you want to wake up to in the morning,” said Christina Vellucci, a resident of Wilson Street.
The tornado happened as the remnants of Florence, once a powerful hurricane, departed as a tropical depression.
“We thought everything was behind us, and this comes through,” said Joseph Velluci.
The National Guard assisted local authorities with crowd control around Elm City.
“It’s going to be a major cleanup,” Cain said. “Duke Energy is also here. They are assessing the damage to see if they can get power restored to the citizens of Elm City. We also have a shelter that has been set up at Elm City Middle School for anyone who needs shelter.”
Rodney Bass stood at the bottom of a ladder as Mark Adams stretched over to replace tin on a roof on Barnes Street for Blessin Vick.
“We’re trying to keep the water out for her, so I thought I would get up there and plug this roof for her,” Bass said.
Vick said the storm brought back memories of a historic hurricane more than 60 years ago.
“I haven’t seen anything like this since Hurricane Hazel,” Vick said. “With the help that we are getting from the community, we will survive and we will come back. We have strong people who work together and help each other. Thank God for everything, because it would have been so much worse.”