SENECA, S.C. – It was the whooshing sound of the wind that finally woke Stephanie Scott up around 3 a.m. Monday.
She couldn’t see, but she heard everything as debris pelted the brick facade of her mother’s home. She ran to her mother’s room, grabbed her, and sought shelter in a doorway as the tornado battered South Oak Street in downtown Seneca.
All the two could do was hold each other and pray, they said, as 160 mph winds tore 100-year-old pecan trees from the ground, ripped the roof right off their house and shattered windows.
As governors nationally seek relief from “catastrophic” economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, governors in the South need help with a physical catastrophe after at least 105 tornadoes carved a terrifying path between Sunday and Monday that killed dozens and caused untold millions of dollars in property damage.
But hope is alive in this region, where neighbors lean on faith to press on and lend a hand to each other during each day of recovery while the invisible threat of COVID-19 looms in the background.
For many, they are deciding what can be done right now: get a tree off the roof, find the family dog, clear debris from the driveway, file an insurance claim, book a hotel room, hug someone.
Assessing job security, their financial well-being and whether they’ll be able to host that social gathering six months from now is an afterthought for many.
“It’s almost like the COVID-19 is not a priority anymore,” said Denise Kwiatek, director of Pickens County (S.C.) Emergency Management. “Our priority is to help these people, priorities to actually be a human being and help.”
‘Just what it’s like to be in the South’
Scott and her mother, Marguerite Reaves, sat in the ruined house surrounded by their rain-soaked belongings Monday morning. It took six hours for others to find the pair, who were waiting behind the rubble of what used to be their sunroom.
Not to Scott’s or Reaves' surprise, the house is ruined.
They lost family heirlooms, clothes, furniture and the red Pontiac Trans Am that Scott was gifted by her late husband. An old pecan tree fell on the sports car, crushing it.
The tornado has exacted a toll on 50-year-old Scott – she hasn’t slept, she’s barely eaten and her nerves are shot. They stayed in a Clemson hotel for a night that the American Red Cross paid for before moving into her cousin's apartment, where they'll be through the end of the month.
From there, Scott doesn’t know where they’ll sleep. Thankfully, her boss at parts manufacturer Nason told her she has a paycheck for the next few weeks, and they’ll help her find a place to stay.
Before the tornado, Scott would leave the house only for work and groceries. She followed strict social distancing guidelines and kept the freezer stocked. Reaves has high blood pressure and diabetes, so keeping her mother safe from the highly contagious respiratory virus was Scott’s main priority.
“I don’t need anything to happen to me right now because I need to help my mom,” Scott said.
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Seneca, a city of about 8,000 on the southern end of Lake Keowee, is rooted in faith and hospitality, Scott said. She's confident they'll pull resources together.
“We in this small town. We speak to each other – black, white, whatever," she said. “We throw up a hand. ‘Hey, how you doing? You need anything?’ That’s just what it’s like to be in the South. That’s what I feel.”
‘By the way, we have a virus’
Volunteers have overwhelmed neighborhoods in Upstate counties where EF3 tornadoes touched down and ravaged whole communities.
Overall, storms in South Carolina early Monday left nine dead, more injured and hundreds with inhabitable homes between the 16 confirmed tornadoes that spanned the entire state. Early National Weather Service reports indicate South Carolina may have been hit by some of the strongest and longest tornadoes in the storm outbreak.
In Hampton County, a tornado as wide as 13 football fields killed five and injured at least 60 in this rural area near the Georgia border. The violent winds, reaching 165 mph, threw a home across a field in Nixville. The Breland family inside – Donna, Jim and daughter Kayla – died.
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As the news spread through the county of 20,000, hundreds drove to the Breland's neighborhood. They showed up with chainsaws to help clear the dozens of felled trees. Others dropped off bottles of water on the porches that weren't destroyed. Trucks rolled in packed with generators.
"I've never seen so many people help," said Angie Ginn, who is both a relative and neighbor of the Brelands.
Cities have set up pick-up sites for free meals prepared by area churches and specific charities have been designated to serve as clearinghouses for in-kind donations.
“How do you help these people? You just want to embrace them," Kwiatek said.
Rather than multiple emergency response teams out at once, Pickens County Emergency Management is sending one team and visiting one badly affected location at a time. Assessment is taking longer, but it’s the best method for keeping COVID-19 in mind. Kwiatek said she has to make sure crews aren't car-pooling.
Even so, human empathy comes first, Kwiatek said.
“Quite a few of us have said, ‘If we get COVID-19 because we were being a human being, OK,’ ” she said. “It’s almost like, ‘These people need help and oh by the way, we have a virus.’ ”
Hugs, tears and baked goods
Coronavirus and social distancing are the last things on Ruby Jane Hoover Brunson’s mind. Right now, all she can think about are the giant pine trees that fell through her roof early Monday morning as the storms railed on Neeses, a small town of a few hundred people in Orangeburg County in South Carolina's Midlands.
More than 10 cars were still parked outside Hoover Brunson’s home Wednesday morning. The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was there assessing damage, while extended family and friends hugged and shed tears in the garage. They munched on brownies and other baked goods.
A pandemic didn’t matter to them in that moment.
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All that mattered was that the home Hoover Brunson, 77, has lived in since 1959 was destroyed. Her niece was one of the two who died in Orangeburg County as a result of Monday morning’s tornadoes, she said.
When Hoover Brunson went to bed Sunday night, she didn’t know storms were in the forecast. At 9 p.m., she got in bed and studied her Bible until 10 p.m., falling fast asleep. Early the next morning, she felt pieces of something falling on her face.
She woke up and realized it was her home’s insulation. She heard a loud thud and made her way out of her bedroom, feeling her way through a dark hallway. Soon after, a pine tree fell through the roof of her bedroom, missing her by just a few minutes.
“Oh, the Lord had to be taking care of me,” said Hoover Brunson.
Now, she’s staying with her granddaughter, Jody Jones, who’s a nurse in Lexington.
Friday will be Hoover Brunson’s 78th birthday.
“What a birthday present,” Hoover Brunson said, sitting on a wooden swing in her garage looking out to the fallen trees in her front yard.
“Well, no,” her sister, Betsy Brown said in response. “I know you think it’s rough but it’s also a good birthday. Because you’re sitting here. You’re here to see it.”
‘We’re still here’
Andre Mavins and Jaquita Scott are feeling happy and blessed, but you wouldn’t know it looking at their home in Neeses.
The couple’s backyard is filled with debris, roofing, children's clothes and toys – where a garage once stood.
Mavins, Jaquita Scott and their 4-year-old daughter sat on the bathroom floor when an EF3 tornado swept through their road.
A few weeks before, Jaquita Scott got a job at the Michelin in Lexington County. But with the coronavirus outbreak keeping some home from work, the company put her start date on hold so she's been unemployed for weeks. Then with Monday's tornado she felt a new sense of uncertainty for what would come next.
But Wednesday morning, Jaquita Scott had a smile on her face. She sat in her car in front of their home, talking to family and friends on the phone. They were some of the lucky ones, she said. She and her family were alive. Their dogs, Marvin and Nala, still run around the yard like nothing happened.
They finally got power back Wednesday morning, the last ones on their street. Mavins has kept busy cleaning the backyard. They’ve talked to their landlord and insurance companies about next steps.
“When we moved here, the roof really needed to get fixed. Guess they got no choice but to fix it now,” Jaquita Scott said laughing. “I’m actually happy that it wasn’t worse and that I still have my family. I’m happy, you know. We’re still here.”
Many people have tried to follow the health precautions released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the wake of the tornado. But many haven’t.
Fully grasping the toll that the pandemic is taking on everyday life might be too hazy to see for many reeling from the immediate and tangible losses of a devastating tornado.
Tornado victims feel blessed
Steve Marshburn saw the worst and the best to come from Monday’s tornado that touched down near Jacksonville in eastern North Carolina.
He had gone into town to find some flooring and was headed to his home on Haws Run Road when he saw and felt the storm that he learned was a EF1 tornado. The National Weather Service said the tornado moved through the area with 100 to 110 mph winds.
The wind blew around his full-size Chevy pickup and along with the rain made it so he couldn’t see.
“Truthfully, I didn’t know what I’d come home to,” Marshburn said.
He found the damage he feared. The roof on his mobile home had blown off and the rain was threatening to ruin his belongings. He saved what he could.
It wasn’t long after that he found the good to come from the storm.
“I packed my trailer up and started loading things and before you know it I had friends and neighbors helping,” Marshburn said. “It was unbelievable; very humbling.”
With everything into storage, Marshburn said he is fortunate. He was not injured and has a place to stay.
“I’m blessed. I had some damage but it could have been a lot worse,” he said.
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The Haws Run tornado in Onslow County is one of six confirmed tornadoes to hit the region.
The EF1 tornado near Jacksonville was the strongest and the others were weaker EFO tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service forecast office in Newport, which covers a 15-county region in Eastern North Carolina.
‘We’re gonna pay for everybody’s kindness’
For others, COVID-19 is a very real threat that can’t be overlooked even when deciding whether to get help from neighbors, or whether accepting that help will lead to further trauma from the virus.
“I'm afraid Seneca is going to be a hotspot because no one has been able to social distance," said Rai Edbrooke, a Seneca woman who lost the ability to walk six months ago from neurological damage.
Through intensive physical therapy, Edbrooke began to make progress with walking, potentially beginning a long journey to recovery.
And then COVID-19 struck.
Doctors appointments were canceled. Physical therapy offices were closed. Edbrooke kept herself isolated since she’s immuno-compromised.
“It’s been so lonely,” Edbrooke said.
Then, the 160 mph tornado struck downtown Seneca.
“I thought, surely God won't send catastrophic storms on top of a global pandemic,” she said.
A map with a thick yellow line depicting the twister’s path through the city was circulated on Facebook and Twitter in the hours after the storm. Edbrooke’s house was in that yellow line.
“I'm shell-shocked. We're literally living in the middle of a disaster zone,” she said.
Her power and water are off. Trees brought down power lines onto their front yard, coating their grass in the serpentine silver wires that feed electricity into the homes in the Adams subdivision where she lives.
Edbrooke can’t be at the house, so she’s staying with her mother, handling the logistics of rebuilding while her husband, Greg "Blue" Herring, handles clean-up at their home.
The one-two punch of the pandemic and tornado have had a real effect on Edbrooke: She hasn’t slept for two nights. Her health has taken several setbacks. She can’t think ahead to the next month, week, day.
Like most people who’ve been affected, dozens of volunteers have offered to help Edbrooke with meals, equipment or just a lending hand.
But for Edbrooke, the lurking invisible virus colors every offer.
"The outpouring of volunteers and help and everything has been tremendous, but we're gonna pay for everybody's kindness, as a community, with coronavirus," she said.
Even so, Edbrooke said it’s hard not to reach out and touch those around her.
“It's confusing. ... You want to go out and hug all your neighbors and take them homemade dishes and everything,” Edbrooke said.
But she can’t and she won’t, not with the “looming threat” of COVID-19.
In Nixville on Monday morning, however, the threat of COVID-19 felt miles away.
When resident Bryan Smith emerged from his damaged home at about 6:30 a.m., he could hear the voices of neighbors. Everyone was asking if people were OK.
"I went house-to-house and checked on people," Smith said. "A lot of people were out already, doing the same thing."
‘They’re running ragged’
One facet to the ongoing pandemic is that more people are at home, isolating and working remotely, so there’s more time for people to lend a hand to a neighbor and focus on clean-up efforts that typically would have taken much longer, said Scott Moulder, Seneca’s city administrator who helped set up a tornado relief fund through a local bank to oversee donations for those with urgent needs. Details on how to disperse the funds were still being fleshed out this week.
"Obviously, you have some people already unemployed as a result of coronavirus, so financials may have been depleted," Moulder said. "We want to find those people and funnel resources to them."
More emergencies cropped up as power was being cut back on to some properties, creating additional electrical hazards. Emergency responders were overburdened.
“They’re running ragged,” he said.
Construction crews are overworked by the sheer amount of repairs needed from the damage left by the storms.
Meanwhile, COVID-19’s death toll eclipsed more than 100 lives in South Carolina with more than 3,600 positive cases as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Businesses deemed non-essential are shut down, nursing homes and hospitals aren’t taking visitors and items such as toilet paper are scarce. Some businesses have permanently shuttered, churches have pivoted to online worship, some cities have enacted curfews and public gatherings of more than three people are prohibited.
But this week was all about crisis management and how to meet each other's immediate needs, even if those same people have suffered recent hardships related to the pandemic.
“The ‘I lost my job and now I lost my house concept,’ I don’t think that’s on their radar right now. I think they’re just trying to overcome what happened to them two days ago,” Kwiatek said.
In response to the storms, the Red Cross South Carolina Region put more than 600 people in hotels as of Thursday while helping families connect with other service providers, said Ben Williamson, a spokesman for the Red Cross.
The only difference with hotel stays is that families are being screened for coronavirus symptoms in addition to answering questions about how they've been impacted by the storm.
"Obviously, we have gone virtual because of COVID-19 but as an organization, we’ve been very busy, dealing with COVID and now this," Williamson said. "Our mission is the same, but how we're doing it is different."
Most towns and cities were still in "response mode" this week but preparing to shift to management mode that will continue for several more weeks, said Moulder, Seneca's city administrator.
People aren't used to combating two emergencies at once, so the one that presents more tangible needs is what residents are focused on the most, he said.
"I don't think there's much social distancing with so many people coming together," Moulder said. "Right now, let's just take care of each other."
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