Volunteers, neighbors and relatives on Thursday began helping a York County neighborhood recover from a devastating tornado that killed three people, injured five others and damaged at least seven homes the night before.
The National Weather Service confirmed that an F2 tornado with winds up to 135 mph struck the neighborhood near the Bethesda Fire Department about 6 p.m. Wednesday. Tornadoes are rated on a scale of up to F5, with F5 the strongest.
The tornado hit five miles southwest of Rock Hill and followed a 2.5-mile path, ending at Vernsdale Road. The destruction was about 200 yards wide.
Cars were overturned. A mobile home was destroyed. And papers belonging to one victim were found as far away as Ballantyne in south Charlotte.
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York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell briefed volunteers and others Thursday morning at the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, about a mile from the site.
He said crews would attempt to keep S.C. 324 open, but the focus of the day would be the residents.
"The main thing is taking care of our citizens," he said. "That's what we're about today, basically taking care of our friends and neighbors."
He estimated the community suffered about $770,000 in uninsured losses, but he doubted if the area could qualify for federal disaster relief.
Derrec Becker, public information officer for the S.C. Emergency Management Department, said 10 counties reported damage to his department. But York County was hardest hit.
"We're looking at the damage, and this is a pretty significant weather event," he said.
He added the state would ensure all manpower and equipment were available if necessary, but it would be awhile before they determined the damage and costs.
Lt. Mike Baker of the York County Sheriff's Office pointed to the participation of numerous agencies and the community residents, saying it takes such a response in this kind of tragedy.
Oakdale Baptist Church was taking donations of gift cards, hygiene products, Gatorade and water, nonperishables, snack food, clothing, dog and cat food and more. Throughout Thursday, the items were loaded onto trucks and taken to the American Red Cross.
Amy Robinson, one of about 100 volunteers in the community, missed her nursing class at York Technical College to help.
"Once we know how much damage has been done and what the needs are," she said, "we will be looking for beds, kitchen supplies, furniture, anything they might need."
They also plan to talk to Habitat for Humanity about housing.
Brian Drawdy brought beverages. He said he has family out near the affected area but the family was OK. Still, he wanted to help.
Keith Lucas lives in the Lesslie community. His daughter, a student at Anderson University, called to talk about the storm and mentioned the church taking donations. Although he was not personally connected to any of the those affected, he wanted to reach out.
"I had a little extra cash and some clothes, plus I had the day off from work, so it worked out," he said, bringing in a case of Gatorade. "Anything to help."
The American Red Cross reported that local companies, including Coca-Cola and Food Lion, donated supplies. Wal-Mart helped feed crews at the fire department, and the Kiwanis Club of Rock Hill planned to donate raffle and meeting proceeds from Thursday to the Red Cross' disaster relief fund.
Katharine Correll, executive director for the Upper Palmetto Chapter of the American Red Cross, said between 15 and 20 volunteers were working in shifts at the site.
"For everybody, it was complete devastation," she said. "Everyone was very shocked."
The Red Cross planned to send out a mobile food truck and have a mental health counselor on-site. The agency hasn't seen anything like this in a long time, she said.
"The fatalities give it a whole different gravity," Correll said.
Only one person has approached the Red Cross for shelter, she said. Anyone who later asks for shelter will be accommodated for several days.
"This is a close-knit community," she said. "There's a lot of church assistance we've been working with to provide what the victims need.
"I think our volunteers, especially our mental health counselor, was reassured by the tightness of the community in that area. It's very unique."
These unique community efforts will aid in the healing process, David Neely said, as he was waiting to go see damage at a relative's house.
"This community is going to have to go through a healing process, and it will," he said. "This is a close-knit neighborhood. Everyone is friends."
Want to help?
Donate water, Gatorade, gift cards, hygiene products, nonperishable food items, clothing and more to Oakdale Baptist Church, 1249 Oakdale Road in Rock Hill or to the American Red Cross at 200 Piedmont Blvd., also in Rock Hill.
You also can donate the American Red Cross' disaster relief fund by visiting redcross.org or calling 803-329-6575.
Tips in case of storm
The Red Cross issues several tips for tornado watches:
Go to an underground shelter or a safe room with no windows or glass; a hallway on the lowest level of a building is also a safe alternative.
Do not seek shelter in a mobile home.
If caught outside, try to find a basement, shelter or sturdy building.
If that isn't possible, get into a car, buckle the seat belt and try to drive to the closest shelter. If debris is flying at the car, pull over, put your head down and cover your head.