A disaster within a disaster: ERTs rush in to help after tornados

By Jessica Brodie, Jill Evans and Billy Robinson

Tornados swept across South Carolina in the early morning of April 13, leveling homes, claiming lives—and providing an opportunity for people of faith to step up as God’s hands and feet.

The National Weather Service confirmed at least 20 tornados touched down in South Carolina in the wee hours after Easter Sunday. It was the biggest tornado outbreak in the state since 1984. Nine people were killed, 150 homes destroyed, nearly 1,500 homes damaged and almost 300,000 homes lost power. Several of the tornados were classified as EF3 twisters, meaning their winds were as high as 165 mph.

That afternoon, South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Teams sprang into action, with major aid rendered in the three hardest-hit pockets of the state: Orangeburg County, Seneca and Clemson, and the Walterboro/Estill/Hampton community.

“At 6:04 a.m., I received a tornado warning call over my North Volunteer Fire/Rescue radio,” said Billy Robinson, who is both South Carolina’s ERT coordinator and the fire chief for the North Fire Department. “At 6:19 a.m. we were called out to our first entrapment call to 449 Sharpe Road out of North for two people trapped inside an overturned mobile home by an EF-3 tornado. We (including Rev. Richard Toy of North UMC, who is also a volunteer firefighter and chaplain) responded immediately in pouring rain and very hazardous conditions toward the trapped couple, but massive debris piles of large trees entwined in downed power lines and poles had to be cut out and pathways cleared before we could reach them.”

Ambulances could not make it through because of low-hanging power lines and trees, so crews had to make their own access in their personal trucks. Two severely injured survivors were freed from their demolished mobile home, placed on spine boards then put into the back of Robinson’s personal truck and rushed to a waiting ambulance.

“We were then off to another location where three survivors were freed from another destroyed home, and we made access to other injured survivors. Unfortunately, one married couple died in the area we were working,” he added.
In Seneca, tornados started just after 4 a.m., and within the first hour, local agencies were responding to address emergencies within a defined grid established by an up and functioning command post, reported Jill Evans.

“The word ‘overwhelmed’ doesn’t describe the magnitude of the debris field of power poles, power lines, trees and parts of buildings making navigation within the zone difficult,” Evans said.

Matt Brodie, disaster response coordinator for the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, said the church has truly stepped up to help.

“Areas around our state have been devastated by tornados and strong storms. Families around the state have lost homes, jobs and even loved ones,” Brodie said. “But the people of The United Methodist Church continue to bring hope in the form of volunteers willing to help. Our early response teams have been working to clear debris, cut trees off homes and tarp damaged roofs.”

Brodie said the ERT phase is now over, though there are still a few pockets where ERT work might be needed.
“But there will be recovery efforts going on for a while,” he added.

Robinson called the outpouring of help “a wonderful, loving and caring response to the deadly and very devastating” disaster.

“Many very challenging and difficult situations were faced and overcome with God’s power, strength, resources and insight,” Robinson said.

While COVID-19 was a real threat that kept some responders away because of health concerns and fears, those who did respond took special precautions and made huge progress, he said.

Orangeburg County response
ERT Teams went immediately into action in Orangeburg County April 13, the morning of the storm, alongside fire, rescue, emergency management services, law enforcement and others.

On Preserver Road, Robinson said, they were able to rescue five people, taking more than an hour to cut through the debris.

A command post was set up at the Piggly Wiggly in Neeses, emergency and fire services continued with a coordinated search and damage assessment throughout the morning into early afternoon. There, the EF-3 tornado was 700 yards wide and cut a path 30 miles long, Robinson said, with 14 homes destroyed and 17 with major damage; many others had moderate to slight damage.

ERT members came to help right away from Greenwood, Summerville and North. They started by cutting out access to a man on oxygen with various other health issues and no power. Fire personnel and law enforcement worked side by side with ERT members and had him freed, with a generator on the way, within 45 minutes.

“We then moved onto cutting trees off of homes and placing tarps on damaged roofs,” Robinson said. “Each family had exceptional stories of storm survival, including the first people rescued in the early morning, as we tarped a shed and helped move debris for them with family members as the parents were still in the hospital.”

The family had heard the tornado warning, he said, and placed a mattress over the teenagers. Just as the parents got a mattress on top of them, the mattress and they were lifted into the air. The mobile home was picked up into the air and rolled over several times. The teenagers were unhurt, but the parents both had serious injuries.

The following day, ERT members helped cut a tree off an RV for the family; it was pulled into the newly cleared position of their old home. Community and family volunteers poured into the devastated site and retrieved many valuables for the devastated family, including three vehicles from under the trailer’s remains. Bonnie Robinson and Michael Hughes from North UMC came with 45 sandwiches and fixings for lunch, which they continued to do for several days. They were followed by others bringing food to various sites where volunteers had gathered to follow the golden rule and truly “love their neighbors as themselves” despite the coronavirus.

“One minister and his family barely escaped death as four family members hunkered down in their bathroom and constantly prayed to God for the winds and damage to go away and leave them unhurt,” Robinson said. “A massive tree literally split their home in two and missed crashing through the bathroom by inches. No one was injured and all were very thankful to be alive.”

More ERT began to respond across the state the next day, April 14, in North—cutting out egress routes to homes, removing trees off of homes and placing tarps on damaged roofs—as well as in the Seneca-Clemson area and the Lowcountry.

Nearby United Methodist and other churches and individuals offered housing and meals.

“It was a beautiful thing to see the communities, faith-based originations, power and phone companies and even strangers coming together to help others during their dire times of need,” Robinson said. “They brought their food, tools, tractors, equipment and passion to help—but especially their hearts of love.”

Seneca-Clemson response
More than 400 UMVIM and ERT volunteers responded after tornados swept through the Upstate.

An EF3 tornado touched down on the west side of Seneca and cut a half-mile-wide by 16-mile-long path of unimaginable destruction across the city of Seneca and the eastern part of Oconee County, Evans reported.

“By evening civic organizations, local churches, construction crews and arborists had flooded the area providing food and clothing and starting the cleanup,” Evans said.

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, relief volunteers found themselves called to serve others in Seneca. ERTs mobilized Monday and arrived Tuesday from Spartanburg, Greenwood, Anderson and Columbia districts, working hand-in-hand with the Caney Fork River District ERTs, who arrived from the Tennessee Conference with trucks, men and heavy equipment in tow. Community volunteers also lined up to help.

Ann Hope and St. Mark UMCs were in the center of the disaster zone, Evans said, and their parking lots were used to feed people and provide bathrooms all while having no power to the buildings.

“Our purpose is to love one another and although the destruction and the personal losses are heartbreaking, the outpouring of help and support from the community has been incredible,” Evans said. “By the end of the week, we became family after spending 24/7 living, working and crying together. The Christian Life Center was the refuge where out-of-town volunteers bunked for the week. A volunteer commented after working the zone, ‘This has been the best and hardest week of my life.’”

Evans said while the landscape of the area will be forever changed, so will the hearts of the people.

“This storm should provide a great reminder that you must be prepared and have a plan in place before the weather alert sounds. In fact, because this tornado was moving at 60 mph across the ground, with sustained winds of 165 mph, many didn’t have time to make it into their shelter area from the time their phone warning system sounded,” she said.

Stephen Turner was the Seneca Disaster lead, Chuck Marshall led a team from the Spartanburg District, Phil Grizwold led a five-person team from New Beginnings UMC in Boiling Springs, John Elmore Jr. led a team from the Greenwood District and Nick Shelly led a seven-person team from the Columbia District Lexington ERT Team. An eight-person team also came from the Tennessee Conference.

Walterboro/Estill/Hampton response
The Rev. Fred Buchanan headed up the response in the Lowcountry and as of press time was in the midst of a big chainsaw and tarp disaster response in Varnville that will take several days.

Robinson said Buchanan’s team was not able to get into the worst-hit areas until Tuesday after the storm and started work on Wednesday doing mainly chainsaw work clearing driveways and access to homes.

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