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Rock Hill tornado victims face rebuilding new year

Mud, Jabo Ferrell explains, is "where the kitchen was."

"There's no kitchen any more," said Ferrell. "No living room either. Or den. Or porch. Or anything else."

Albert "Jabo" Ferrell, a builder all his life, whose hands are so hard they may as well be made of steel like the hammer he carries, stood in the dirt on the exact spot where he and his wife, Judy, were when the Nov. 16 tornado hit.

They were on the couch, watching television.

"We heard it and I started to get the couch to put over her, keep the roof from falling on her, and I looked up and there wasn't any roof," Jabo Ferrell recalled. "There was debris all over us. The place was gone all around. And all that happened was I got a little cut on my head. Can't tell me God wasn't watching over us that day. No one can tell me God doesn't have a plan for me."

Somehow, the old farmhouse destroyed around them, the Ferrells survived. A pecan grove as old as the house was destroyed. Other hundred-plus year old oak and pine trees were gone.

The house, and almost everything in it, was blown away or destroyed.

All that remained was the carport, an oil tank, a chicken house, and a pump house.

"I never wavered in that God had a plan for me, and that in doing good the best I could all my life, I was being rewarded," Ferrell said. "So I could do more."

The toll from the Nov. 16 tornado that hit a two-mile stretch about 200 yards wide south of Rock Hill was breathtaking and brutal.

Three people were killed. Oran Steve Courtney of Williamson Road died when his chimney fell on him. Barbara and Charles Kenneth Hafner of S.C. 324 - who lived across the street from Jabo Ferrell's house - died when the storm ripped their mobile home from its foundation.

A dozen people were injured, eight homes were destroyed, and more than 20 other buildings damaged.

Nathan Courtney, who lost his father, Steve, in the storm said the family is still dealing with the devastation.

"One day at a time," Nathan Courtney said. "It has been very difficult. Nobody really felt like celebrating at Christmas."

Steve Courtney saved his daughter and granddaughter before he died.

The family has not decided about rebuilding the home. Because the economy is so rough the family's electric business has not re-opened. The outpouring of support from the Courtney's home church, Northside Baptist, and from others at Oakdale Baptist Church and many more in the community, has been a blessing, Nathan Courtney said.

"We are looking at the new year and hoping it will be better," he said. "It couldn't get any worse."

For Patricia Cox, whose mother and stepfather, Barbara and Charles Hafner, died in the storm the hope for the new year is that the family can recover from such a loss.

At Christmas she bought her 4-year-old son Ethan a "Cars 2" DVD because her mother had already bought one for him. Like so much of what the Hafners owned, the Christmas gift was destroyed in the storm.

"I put on there that it was from them, for Christmas, because it really was," Cox said. "This was a hard holiday season."

The tornado was the worst York County disaster of 2011 because of the loss of lives, said Cotton Howell, York County's longtime emergency management director. In terms of dollar damage and property damage, the spring storms caused more destruction. From Clover to Sharon, Hickory Grove to Rock Hill, hundreds of houses were damaged in the spring.

Yet in those storms that uprooted trees, clogged roads, knocked out power, damaged buildings, people survived.

"Roofs can be replaced," Howell said. "Lives can't. York County lost three people in the tornado. No one will ever forget them."

The dollar estimate for damage from the tornado has not been finalized because all property owners have not yet reported what they lost, Howell said.

Some residents were upset after the storm that York County did not use government heavy equipment and workers for jobs other than clearing roads and police protection, leaving private contractors to volunteer their heavy equipment to remove debris.

Howell said that county equipment and workers could not be used for people's private. The county landfill could not take storm debris from private property for free, Howell said, as those costs are part of any homeowner's insurance policy.

Insurance companies are required to handle those recovery tasks and costs, Howell said.

The response by volunteers is what makes York County a special place. The red-tape of government and insurance does not stop the work of recovery. Volunteers, companies made up of real people, did much of the work for free.

The response to the tornado by the community - volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members, neighbors, churches, and more - is the memory of the tornado that showed York County's best side, Howell said.

Hundreds of volunteers helped for days after the storm, removing debris and donating food and clothing. Dozens more returned items blown away in the storm that were found miles away.

After the devastation, what remained was York County's helpful community spirit. Volunteers cared not about governments, or insurance companies, or who was supposed to do what. They just did. Jabo Ferrell talked of all the people who came to help him, without him ever asking a single person to come.

"People just came," he said. "They came and came until it was done. People are just good. Better than good. Great and loving and generous."

"As soon as the roads were re-opened, there were lines of people waiting to come in and help," Howell said. "It stayed that way for several days. We can plan for disasters, we can respond to damage and our damage assessment is now better than ever because we had people actually do it, but there is no plan for the heart of a community. And this community showed again that it comes together to help each other. The tornado was terrible - the response by people to try and ease the pain of those affected by it was great."

It is that outpouring of help that saved Janet Neely. She was found by volunteers under her bathtub, in a home destroyed by the storm across the street from where Ferrell lives, and next door to where the Hafners lived. Neely was passed from arm to arm, person to person, to safety that awful night.

""We'd like to rebuild eventually," Janet Neely said. "The end of this past year was terrible. But this year, God willing, will be better."

In the corner lot where S.C. 324 and Skyline Road come together, Jabo Ferrell's place, the plan is to rebuild the house with a new floor plan. Until then, Ferrell will live across the street in a modular home.

"You never realize what a 'home' is, your home, until you have no home," said Jabo Ferrell. "You work all day, you want to go home. I been going to a house. A house is not home."

Ferrell has never asked why his home was destroyed, when others a few hundred yards away were spared. Ferrell's home was scattered over miles - the roof was never found. Chimney bricks were found hundreds of yards away.

The dogs, Butch and Rex, survived to try and chase the chickens while Jabo Ferrell tells Butch and Rex; "Don't even think about it!"

The chickens survived.

So did the cows. "One cow had a horn cut clear off, sheared off straight, must have been a flying piece of metal," said Jabo, "And a bull was cut on its neck and a calf had a broken leg."

Ferrell puts it plainly that he believes he lived through that tornado because it is God's will that he live to work more, love his family more, rebuild, and be a good Christian person like he has all his life.

Underneath the rubble was a picture of Ferrell as a child, with the seven brothers and sisters and his mother. It is the only picture of that family, after Ferrell's father died and two of the children had died.

"That is a precious thing, that picture," said Jabo Ferrell. "A roof, you put one on. A house, you rebuild it. But a family you got just the one."

Up in a tree, just to the west of where his home was destroyed, is an old blanket, or rug, the remains wrapped around limbs. It is at least 100 feet off the ground.

"Only way a rug gets up in a tree like that is a tornado blows it up there. Yes, leave it there. A reminder of that terrible night," Ferrell said.