125 homes lost across state to weekend storms

John Simmons, 47, surveys the damage done to his home Monday, after it hit by a weekend storm in Elgin. Monday. Simmons and his wife, two sons and the family dog were in a downstairs bathroom when officials say an F3 tornado hit the town.
John Simmons, 47, surveys the damage done to his home Monday, after it hit by a weekend storm in Elgin. Monday. Simmons and his wife, two sons and the family dog were in a downstairs bathroom when officials say an F3 tornado hit the town.

COLUMBIA -- More than 125 South Carolina families lost their homes and hundreds more are making repairs after spring tornadoes raked across the state Saturday.

Winds reaching 165 mph peeled the top off a water tower in Bath, removed roofs at Denmark Technical College in Bamberg County and churned up hail that damaged 62 airplanes at the Hilton Head airport.

The American Red Cross reported a handful of injuries, but no deaths.

Organizers of Elgin's centennial celebration vowed to press ahead with their curtsy to community history Saturday, despite destruction there. Kershaw County was one of the state's hardest-hit areas.

But between now and then, the National Weather Service warns thunderstorms could gather late Wednesday or early Thursday, hastening the need for salvage and repairs.

Already, rain had discouraged folks like John Simmons, who was cleaning up his place in Elgin on Monday.

"What the wind didn't do, the rain did," he said. "I've got water damage in every room."

In addition to Kershaw County, damage seemed concentrated in the Langley-Bath-Clearwater textile communities of Aiken County; Allendale in Allendale County; Prosperity in Newberry County; and Branchville in Orangeburg County.

The state Emergency Management Division, which is in charge of disaster response, said insured losses could reach $20 million to $25 million. Numbers of damaged structures varied Monday as the agency and the American Red Cross continued their county-by-county assessments.

"If they reported damage, then we go in and take a look," Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker said.

Destruction was not widespread enough to generate help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Mary Nash, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.

Gov. Mark Sanford activated the state's emergency plan, freeing up state personnel and equipment to assist with storm recovery.

"For the individuals in need, right now there's a void there," the governor acknowledged during a stop in Branchville.

He also toured Elgin and Berkeley County to assess the damage.

The worst-hit areas might also qualify for federal aid and loans, Sanford said.

"For the individuals, families and businesses impacted, it's devastating," he said. "My thoughts and prayers go out."

Seven 'super cell' systems

The National Weather Service delineated seven separate "super cell" systems, each of which could have dropped down many tornadoes. Steve Naglic, severe weather coordinator in Columbia, said it will be difficult to come up with an accurate number of tornadoes because the system was so widespread.

He was amazed there weren't more injuries.

"I talked to a lot of people who said they were aware something was coming," Naglic said. "If we're going to get a big outbreak, at least the super cells give more lead time" because they follow a relatively linear path.

More than 1,500 customers in Bath were still without water Monday after a tornado blew the top off the water tower and uprooted trees damaged waterlines, said David Ruth, coordinator for Aiken County Emergency Management.

Emergency workers were trying to determine whether the tower was structurally sound before replacing its top.

None of the recognized "super cells" went through Allendale, but some of the most serious damage was in that county.

County administrator Arthur Williams said 127 structures were destroyed, but officials were continuing to find areas they hadn't realized had been hit. Most of the structures destroyed were mobile homes that "completely disintegrated," he said.

Many trees were toppled, too, including entire groves of pecan trees.

At Harrison-Caver Park in Aiken County, two concrete-block dugouts at the baseball fields crumbled, and metal bleachers were twisted and tossed 180 feet.

The youth leagues that usually play at the park and whose players probably would have sought protection by huddling inside the dugouts had no games scheduled this weekend, said Emory Langston with the county Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.

By the end of the day Monday, state emergency officials said 68 houses had been destroyed, 81 had major damage and 352 homes had minor damage.

The American Red Cross reported 127 homes were destroyed.

In Denmark, a tornado blew off about half the roofs of two campus buildings at Denmark Technical College, and a tree fell through the roof of another, said Jacqueline Skubal, vice president for institutional planning at the school. Few people were in the classroom buildings on a Saturday, and nobody was hurt.

Several buildings at nearby Voorhees College also were damaged.

The American Red Cross of Central S.C. expects to spend $150,000 to $200,000 assisting victims at a time when disaster relief funds have been depleted, Nash said.