BRUNSWICK COUNTY – North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper visited part of Ocean Ridge Plantation Wednesday, the golf community hit hardest by the fatal tornado that touched down near Ocean Isle Beach late Monday night.
Guided by Brunswick County Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow, Cooper treaded through a debris-filled cul-de-sac where roofs were ripped away, personal belongings were strewn across yards, windows were shattered and garage doors were crushed. It is the scene of the deadliest tornado to strike southeastern North Carolina since 2006.
“It’s devastating — no doubt about it,” the governor observed once on the ground. “A tornado can just completely destroy and do it in such an abrupt manner.”
Despite the subdivision consisting of solidly built brick houses, at least 60 were damaged in the EF3 tornado’s path. Two properties were taken out completely by the violent winds, which the National Weather Service reported reached at least 165 mph.
Ocean Ridge Plantation was the scene of all three fatalities. The storm wounded 10.
“Our hearts go out to the families of those who’ve lost their lives, to the person who is still in critical condition, others who have been injured,” Cooper said in a press conference following his tour. “And in talking with people who’ve lost their homes but are safe, their priorities are in the right place. People seem to be very thankful that they are alive, even though their homes are damaged and they have a lot to rebuild.”
Kathy and Joe Arancio were two of those folks. As Cooper stopped in front of their ravaged home, the two recounted how they awoke to the beating of hail. Next, almost instantaneously, the gusts came.
Joe Arancio arose from bed when he heard the pellets pounding. Then he was pushed back down. “That’s probably the only thing that helped me survive – being knocked down,” Joe Arancio said.
Meanwhile, Kathy Arancio was on the living room sofa and rose just as hail smashed through the glass window. She described how she ducked, then “the whole back of the house blew in, and I went for a ride.” She was buried under a teak porch chair that had landed over her like a “teepee tent,” which she believes protected her from flying hazards that may have otherwise ended her life.
“You have an amazing attitude about all this,” the governor told the couple. “It’s got to be devastating to lose your home like this.”
“We’re here. We have something to deal with,” Kathy Arancio responded. “There are others across the street and across the golf course that don’t have that good fortune.”
The minimal warning of the storm increased its threat. Almost everyone in its path was asleep at the time of the unexpected twister from 11:54 p.m. to 12:02 a.m.
Emergency Services Director Conrow called it a “freak storm.” From his talks with the weather service, and based on his own experience living just 2 miles from the site, Conrow said he knew the storm intensified at a high speed.
“It developed so fast,” Conrow told the governor. “It was really nothing and it just exploded; within four minutes we had a tornado on the ground, which is scary. Everyone’s in bed at night time sleeping.”
“I know that there are continued efforts to improve the warning system for weather-related events,” Cooper said later. “Tornadoes are probably the hardest to predict and to know where they are and particularly one like this that’s in the middle of the night when most people have gone to bed.”
Cooper told people on scene he would work to provide additional resources to the area. Already the state has deployed some assets, such as the State Highway Patrol, which Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram told the governor has been valuable. Damage assessments need to be completed to see what governmental financial assistance the area qualifies for, Cooper said. Chief of Staff for the Division of Emergency Management William Ray accompanied the governor on his visit to survey the area.
On Wednesday Brunswick County Board of Commissioners Chair Randy Thompson declared a state of emergency in response to the tornado, a move that could help the area seek state and federal funds.
According to preliminary details from the weather service released Wednesday, the tornado initially landed near the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Angel Trace Road, snapping pine trees. The twister impacted a sizable metal structure, flipped RVs and damaged a church as it moved toward Ocean Ridge Plantation. Once inside the development, winds peaked around Cambria Court and the path widened to 275 yards across Windsor Circle.
It continued across Highway 17, into woods to upend hundreds of trees, the weather service detailed. Overall the storm steamrolled 22 miles before lifting about three miles east of Highway 211, after passing the Bear Pen Airstrip. Many parts of its path were in rural areas with few people and structures.
Wednesday was the second time the governor has visited Brunswick County during the pandemic. In August 2020, Cooper toured saturated oceanfront homes and roads buried in sand and debris after Hurricane Isaias pummeled Oak Island.
On his most recent trip to the plantation, the governor was double masking, with a disposable blue mask under his black cloth covering. It’s a Covid-19 prevention technique newly endorsed by the CDC.
“This is a difficult time for everybody because of this pandemic, and then to have a storm of this magnitude on top of that just adds extra burdens to communities,” Cooper said, “but what we’ve seen here already are people of faith, people who understand the the importance of being good neighbors, and it’s been amazing to see people pull together. A number of people that I talked to just talked about how close-knit this community is and how they want to reach out.”
He said the people of Brunswick County were resilient after the last disaster and they will recover this time, too.
The aftermath of the Feb. 15 storm is bound to require “long-term recovery,” as county officials have repeatedly stated over the past couple days. Search and rescue efforts are concluded and emergency operations have now shifted focus to structural evaluations and rehabilitation.
“This is going to be a community effort,” Conrow said. “We had boots on the ground yesterday in the response mode and we’re transitioning to that recovery mode.”
Sheriff Ingram asked that people respect the impacted areas and stay away unless they are a resident or a worker.
“The last thing we need is to be inundated with a lot of traffic and onlookers as people are trying to pick up the pieces,” Ingram said.
Right now, the American Red Cross is on the ground, providing long-term support. Ingram and Conrow both described the great number of responses from the community, including nonprofits and businesses, offering hands to help.
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