BRUNSWICK COUNTY – Before the 160 mph winds barreled through Ocean Isle Beach, almost everyone in the coastal community was already awake.
Just before midnight on Feb. 15, the lightning was constant. The hail was beating. The thunder reverberated.
In a home off Highway 17, Teah and Mark DiSpirito’s grandson rose to the sound of nature’s fury. Upset, he sought comfort at the bedside of his grandparents, who assured him it would be OK.
Then an unfamiliar noise — rumblings — started.
“We all of a sudden realized that this is a tornado and jumped up,” Teah said.
The family huddled in the bathroom for safety.
Not until the next morning did Teah find a fallen tree collapsed through a bedroom ceiling in the house. Over the sounds of the storm, the family didn’t hear the winds uproot four pines and hurl them onto the roof.
“It just happened so fast,” Teah reflects, nearly three weeks after the tornado that killed three and injured 10 in the neighborhood across the street. “We never would have thought that much could happen in such a short period of time.”
Related: Gov. Roy Cooper tours Brunswick County tornado destruction
The DiSpirito family is temporarily living in a donated rental home, organized by the American Red Cross. They are staying for four weeks and will soon move onto another rental. After that, they plan to park a camper or an RV on their property while repairs are finished. Teah said she doesn’t know at this point how long that will take.
“There’s a lot of people who are needing work done,” Teah said. “So I guess it will depend.”
More than 60 homes were significantly damaged in the unexpected tornado that ripped through 22 miles of Brunswick County that February night. The Red Cross assessed another 180 homes in need of at least some repair. If it weren’t for the miles of uninhabited woods the twister traveled through, more victims could have perished in the tragedy.
“It came real close to a campground where you would have had people even more exposed than in the frame-built houses,” said Steven Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Even though it was a long track tornado, fortunately, it grazed across the timberland and the Green Swamp area in the central part of the county, where there’s little development.”
Ocean Ridge Plantation, a golf course community, suffered the brunt of the storm. According to the neighborhood’s charity association, 110 homes were impacted, with effects ranging from minor to major.
“Some of the people I’ve spoken with have said that they won’t have their house repairs finished for nine months to a year,” said Maggy Schlink, president of the Ocean Ridge Charities Association. “And those people don’t have just a pile of rubble, you know? They have a house that’s been damaged and will need a lot of interior work and exterior work.”
Ocean Ridge Plantation typically boasts a country-club lifestyle and luxury homes surrounded by lush landscapes and woodlands. But today, windows are boarded up. Loose tarps flap on roofs. Movers carry furniture from condemned homes into trucks. Tree trunks lay in yards, waiting for contractors to chop them up into portable pieces.
Other parts of the plantation look untouched.
“There’s maybe only a front façade left, or a back façade left and the rest of the house just gone. And three doors down, it might be nothing,” said Sheree Seben, chair of Ocean Ridge Plantation’s landscape committee. “Just the randomness of it is unsettling.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation began the process of clearing vegetative debris on Monday, while the county picks up piles of construction and demolition.
“In front of the homes in the affected areas and in vacant lots, I’m not exaggerating when I say, vegetative debris is stacked 6 feet high,” Seben said.
Although the state agency is taking on the cost of debris removal, the other coverage will need to come from the community and county. Brunswick County Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow said the disaster will not hit a monetary threshold to qualify for FEMA funding.
‘Freak storm,’ anomaly, record-breaking
The Feb. 15 twister was unexpected and devastating enough to earn itself multiple titles within its 11-minute duration.
The strongest tornado on record in Brunswick County.
The strongest in the Cape Fear region since the EF-3 Riegelwood tornado struck Columbus County in 2006.
A “freak storm,” Conrow called it during a press briefing.
Pfaff of the National Weather Service called it an anomaly, in more ways than one.
For one, the intensity was greater than what the area typically endures. About 75% of tornadic events in the Carolinas are either an EF-0 and EF-1. This was an EF-3.
The width of the tornado also deviated from standards. At 275-yards wide during its peak intensity, the tornado bulldozed through Ocean Ridge Plantation. Most Carolina tornadoes are less than 80 yards wide, Pfaff said.
Its uninvited arrival was also outside of tornado season, which runs from mid-April through early June and peaks again in September, making it even more difficult to predict and little time to provide a sufficient warning.
The National Weather Service put out its first warning, a special marine notice for the water south of the county, at 11:11 p.m. At 11:33 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for southwest Brunswick County. It instructed people to move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a building.
“Tornadoes can occur suddenly when we have severe thunderstorm warnings in effect,” Pfaff said. “We can’t take any warning lightly.”
It was 11:39 p.m. by the time the first tornado warning went out. The storm was already on the ground, leaving devastation in its wake.
“At this time, we feel the warning system worked appropriately,” Conrow said. “It’s just, this storm didn’t give us enough time to get that warning out fast enough.”
There is some concern about the weather service radar off Highway 130 in Shallotte. Over the last 25-plus years, the trees surrounding the structure have grown and are now obstructing lower-elevation scans. It’s a problem known as “beam blockage.”
The radar can’t be built higher because too much signal loss would be lost. The trees can’t come down because cutting them would require working with 19 different landowners. Plus, there are environmental impacts to consider.
The only solution is relocating the radar, a $5.75-million endeavor that must receive budget approval from the national agency.
Pfaff adds that only a sliver of radar data is blocked, though.
“Most of it is good, good information,” he said, adding that the weather service can utilize algorithms and systems, such as the MRMS (multi-radar/multi-sensor) system, to fill in the missing information.
An overwhelming response
The disaster brought in an overwhelming response for help, to the point where Brunswick County issued a public statement stating it could not accommodate any more donations.
CAMS, the community’s association management service, launched a GoFundMe that raised more than $47,500 for tornado recovery. The Ocean Ridge Charities Association is distributing the funds. The 501(c)(3) also collected money through PayPal, Facebook and its neighbors campaign, which was created specifically for residents within the community.
“It’s been heartwarming, just the response people have had,” association president Schlink said. “It’s not only the cash . . . It’s these lovely notes that tell us, ‘We’re praying for you,’ and ‘Hang in there,’ and ‘It’s such a lovely place; it’ll be that again.’”
She said, with more than 100 families affected, it’s impossible to collect enough to take the entire burden off homeowners. They’re calling the contributions a “small financial hug.”
It’s the first time in 10 years the charity association is giving donations within the plantation’s gates. Over the years it has provided $865,000 of cash and commodities, such as back-to-school supplies, to nonprofits throughout the county – but never to its own neighbors.
The nonprofit hopes to distribute some funds to nearby families who were also affected. It is currently waiting on an official list of those in need.
Mobilize the Red Cross
Red Cross was also active on the scene. Anytime a disaster happens, from a home fire to a tornado, its action teams mobilize. The call for the Brunswick County tornado came in just hours after the tornado lifted. By 8 a.m., its family reception center was open and operating.
“Any time you have a storm as powerful as this one was, it’s going to be a long recovery,” said James Jarvis, executive director of the American Red Cross of the Cape Fear Area. “You can rebuild the structures, but it’s going to take some time to rebuild the community’s sense of security and safety. Simply because a tornado is such a jarring event that truly does come out of nowhere.”
Volunteers opened 13 cases to help families. The organization provided breakfast to 150 first responders the first day and 575 meals overall. Nurses helped 50 survivors replace lost prescriptions.
“It’s not practical to try to dig through the rubble to find where your medications were,” Jarvis said.
As of early March, the Red Cross was working with six families on their next steps and securing temporary lodging. In rural communities, housing is hard to come by, but the Red Cross aims to keep families near their jobs, churches, schools and support systems.
To honor the first responders and victims, the Red Cross is hosting an Ocean Isle Beach community blood drive on March 25 at St. Luke Lutheran Church from 11 a.m. till 6 p.m.
“When a tornado or a disaster like this happens, it’s really important that we have the blood on the shelves that our hospitals need,” Jarvis said.
Red Cross’ licensed practicing psychologists have helped 97 community members process what happened.
“You’ve got people who had relatively minimal damage but might have some survivor’s guilt, and wondering how they were fortunate enough to avoid being killed or injured,” Jarvis said.
The Red Cross helped the DiSpirito family ensure they were handling the reaction from their young grandson well.
“He is doing a lot better, even his teachers at school are saying he seems to have sort of worked through some things,” Teah said.
She said now he points out the tornado’s path when they’re driving by downed trees. She thinks this is a positive sign – one of a few, actually. Now that her yard is bare of trees, she’ll finally have some sun for the garden she always wanted, and her husband, an electrician, set a new retirement goal: volunteer with disaster relief.
“Especially after such a tough year, with Covid and everything else, it was so nice to see something good come out of something so bad,” she said.
Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at email@example.com