SIFTING, SALVAGING: Family in St. Andrews can’t shake shock of losing everything

By ALEXA MILAN

SANFORD — Sanford resident Audrey Thomas was at the beach when it happened. She checked her voice mail after an otherwise average day to find a frantic message from her neighbor Shana Greer … her voice shaking.

“Audrey please call me back. We’ve been hit by a tornado.”

Thomas picked up her kids, Jordan, 15, and Madison, 13, and drove back to Sanford on Saturday afternoon in shock. When she got back to her house on St. Joseph Street, it was unrecognizable.

Glass filled the living room. The strength of the tornado ripped the roof from the house. Jordan’s and Madison’s second-floor bedrooms were cluttered with books, DVDs and dirt-covered trinkets. Thomas’ first-floor bedroom and the bathroom were the only rooms untouched.

“I still don’t believe it’s happened,” Thomas said. “Every day when I drive through here, it’s like it’s happening again.”

Thomas and her children, who have been staying with Thomas’ brother, have returned to their home every day from 9 a.m. until about 6 p.m. to sift through the rubble and salvage what they can. They’ve been able to save some clothes, some furniture and some kitchen utensils. Nearly everything else is lost or damaged.

Greer’s home is in a similar state, her yard now just dirt and broken tree branches. When Greer’s husband saw the tornado coming, they grabbed their two kids and their dog and hid in the bathroom. Despite the damage to their homes, Greer and Thomas said they just thank God their families and neighbors were safe.

“Probably no sooner than we shut the door, the windows blew out,” Greer said. “It was surreal.”

But as they return each day to pick up the pieces, Greer and Thomas have seen unrelenting support from volunteers from Sanford and beyond. In addition to the presence of the Red Cross, emergency management and the United Way, churches and other organizations have rallied throughout the county to begin cleaning up the destroyed areas.

“There have been so many offers of support,” Thomas said. “My phone hasn’t quit ringing.”

In the first few days after the tornado, First Baptist Church assisted in boarding up windows in St. Andrews and has since moved on to help other volunteers in the Poplar Springs area. More than 400 volunteers from North Carolina Baptist Men are scattered throughout the county cleaning debris, sawing uprooted trees and covering houses with tarp where roofs once were.

Baptist Men Site Coordinator John Gore said the group has completed about 26 jobs so far out of the 116 requests they’ve had. The Baptist Men volunteers have come from across the state to assist with clean-up efforts. Bob Weatherly of Second Baptist Church in Hamlet said when they first arrived, the destruction was indescribable.

“Words can’t explain the devastation,” Weatherly said. “Television doesn’t do it justice.”

Tamara Lewis, whose sons are in Boy Scout Troop 941, said the scouts have been trying to help wherever they can. After helping clear yards of debris in the St. Andrews area, several residents said they really needed cardboard boxes to store found belongings in. Lewis and her sons Daniel and Gregory spent Wednesday driving through the neighborhood with a van full of boxes, distributing them to whoever needed them.

“This is our second time out,” Lewis said. “The residents said they really appreciated the boxes.”

Though the sites of the tornado’s path are still cluttered with debris, Thomas said the outpouring of community support is helping the storm’s victims slowly pick up the pieces. Thomas has met with an insurance adjuster and was told it could be a year before the area is completely rebuilt.

Neither Thomas nor Greer are quite sure what their families will do next. Right now, they said they are just trying to deal with the shock one day at a time.

“I have no idea what the future will hold,” Greer said. “You don’t think you’re ever going to have to deal with something like this. But it’s done, and you just move forward.”