ERTs help swath of homes after tornado wreaks havoc in Branchville

By Billy Robinson

On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 5, strong thunderstorms and multiple tornadoes ravaged parts of South Carolina.

One of the tornadoes was an EF-3 for most of its 39-mile path from Ulmer to Bowman. At its widest portion, it was 500 yards wide, with the weather service stating it had the power of an EF-4 when it touched down in a pine tree plantation, snapping all the big trees five feet off the ground and decimating the forest.

Thankfully the tornado happened in a rural area and was constantly touching down and picking up off the ground throughout its path, minimizing the damage.

When it touched down just outside of Branchville at 5721 Freedom Road (Highway 21) it was an EF-3 and caused havoc to at least 13 homes in the rural community located between Branchville and Rowesville. By the grace of God, no one was seriously injured, though many big trees were violently thrown to the ground with the majority of them falling across driveways and near homes. A few trees did partially fall onto some homes, causing roof damage and breaking windows.

The following day, more violent storms rocked our state, hindering aid to the affected areas. Orangeburg County Emergency Services Director Billy Staley contacted our South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers In Mission Early Response Teams Wednesday night to aid the families affected.

The next morning, Thursday, the ERT responded first with assessment teams, who made contact with the survivors and assessed their needs, prayed for them and offered Scripture aids of comfort and care.

Then Friday and Saturday, ERT disaster response teams responded with 21 volunteers from various portions of the state, two disaster response trailers and two skid steers to take on the phenomenal task of cutting up the big trees with chainsaws at 11 homes and piling the debris in wood lines since the county was not going to pick up the storm debris.

We also tarped seven homes and structures that had damaged roofs and windows to prevent any further weather damage.

We started at 5721 Freedom Road, cutting a big pine tree away from the side and roofline of a home and placing tarps over three broken windows for a grateful family unable to do the task themselves because of health issues. We went from house to house in the same vicinity and across the road, saving homeowners ten of thousands of dollars and making their homes accessible and livable again.

In several locations, we also cut out access so the power company could restore power to the homes. On Seacrest Lane we found family helping family, some traveling from Charleston to do so. We worked side by side with them, cutting fallen trees and debris away and tarping damaged roofs.

The last home we worked at was a unique one, where a big oak tree had fallen over and into Bob and Diane Williams’ shed, located at 5842 Freedom Road. The big tree was completely covering the shed, making access to it impossible and very dangerous because of partial collapse of the building.

Using a skid steer and chainsaws, we methodically and carefully removed the big tree from the partially destroyed shed. We were then able to save the large majority of its contents including a collection of more than 300 elephant collectibles, educational items for kids and various other items. The salvaged items were loaded onto a trailer and hauled to their home. A tarp was placed over the severely damaged shed to help salvage half of it and protect its remaining contents.

The homeowners kept stating that they were so grateful and had never witnessed or even heard of a group of people who would come out in the midst of a disaster to voluntarily help complete strangers in need. Mr. Williams teared up as he stated, “Y’all work so hard and somehow keep a smile on your face at all times.”

I replied to him, “We are so blessed and find great joy, hope, fulfillment, excitement and much love in being God’s hands and feet to others in need. It is truly our honor and privilege to represent the love of Jesus in such caring ways. We become so much better people and are so blessed ourselves when we heed God’s calling to be our brother and sister’s keeper. We are the church being ‘the church’ as Jesus Christ calls us to be.” Anything less would be unacceptable.

Robinson is the South Carolina UMVIM ERT coordinator.

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