'I've Never Seen Anything Like It Before' | The April 15 Tornado, One Year Later
Hundreds were left homeless. More than a thousand buildings sustained some level of damage after a tornado slammed Greensboro, Rockingham County on April 15, 2018.
Video: WFMY
Author: Erica Stapleton
Published: 7:26 PM EDT April 14, 2019
Updated: 9:47 AM EDT April 16, 2019
LOCAL 7 Articles

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Faith, hope and survival. A look back those who survived the April 15, 2018 EF-2 tornado.

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'I've Never Seen Anything Like It Before' | The April 15 Tornado, One Year Later

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1

April 15, 2018.

The day an EF-2 tornado touched down and tore up parts of Greensboro, Guilford County and Rockingham County. The twister traveled for a total of 33 miles before dissipating in Danville, Va. 

Hundreds were left homeless. More than a thousand buildings sustained some level of damage.  And now, a year later, we're taking a look at where donations went, how families are doing and how neighborhoods are different, for better or for worse. 

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

REBUILDING NEIGHBORHOODS

"Everything was just twisted. You couldn’t see up the street because it was nothing but trees that were down.  Everything was down and it just looked so strange."

Also down, was Gwen Knight's porch and eventually a big part of the roof at her Bothwell street home.

"This was my family’s home," she explains.  "I grew up here."

When the tornado tried to uproot her roots, she planted her feet. She stayed in her home despite the damage.  She didn't have insurance, didn't qualify for FEMA aid and didn't really have anywhere else to go.

"I didn’t know what we were going to do to tell you the truth. It was just the help of God and them."

"Them" is a team from Community Housing Solutions, a nonprofit group that worked with the City to help reapir homes.  Their work was all funded by donations.  Executive Director Gene Brown says they worked on about 50 homes and saw an immense amount of damage.

"Trees had basically cut off about a third of her house," he says, talking abut Emma Long's house on English St.

Unlike Gwen Knight, Emma Long had to leave her home right after the storm like many other families.  She managed to escape with her life, although her home was unlivable.

"When I came out after the storm, i didnt think it could be repaired."

But just before Christmas, 9 months after the tornado, a true miracle happened.  Volunteers finished up her home and she was able to move back in. 

"Took my breath as i walked through the door," she said in a December interview.  "I lost everything, But I gained a lot."

As crews worked on Knight's home a few blocks over, she lived in a section that still had the roof intact.  She's still waiting on some finishing touches, but relieved by the progress.

"I think they were angels that were sent because all the work that they did," she tells.  "To see these houses that have been fixed up and changed? it’s a blessing. The neighborhood itself is better. It's better."

The process has been a lot slower for Clinton Gravely, who had an architect firm on Banner Ave.

And as he shows me around a year later, the labor of love that went into the building is as clear as the sky you can see through the ripped off roof.

"We put so much effort in building this building, we’d been in it about 8 or 9 years. It was really something to lose, because it was almost like a home away from home."

But the blows didn't stop when the tornado passed.  Gravely says work crews have had thousands of dollars of equipment stolen.  He also had to tear down two of his rental houses on the property,  a space where others have been dumping their trash.

These are the kind of things that, you question even rebuilding in a neighborhood," he says.

But he's not giving up on his home away from home just yet.  He's working on plans, but expects they won't finish a rebuild for at least another year or two.

"We’re trying to get drawings ready even if we do rebuild, we have to submit them to the city again. but for all the things that are happening here, it’s very, very, very frustrating."

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

THE SCHOOLS

The tornado damaged three Guilford County school buildings so badly that students and teachers couldn't return to class.  A year later, they still can't.

Erwin Montessori, Peeler and Hampton Elementary schools are all still closed.

Within a week of the tornado, the district relocated all three schools, moving students at Erwin to Alamance Elementary, Peeler to Bluford Elementary and Hampton to Reedy Fork Elementary.  All classes and teachers were kept together, despite being in new buildings.

"It's a saddened feeling but you also feel blessed," says Karen Wallace, a first grade teacher at Erwin Montessori.

"I don't want to start crying or anything, but on that day, I'm just so thankful it wasn't a school day and our students were not in session.  Just to look at that area, i'm sure we would have had some fatalities."

The district says it's been waiting on insurance money before they make any repairs or decisions about the schools.  The last we checked, they were expecting to hear from the insurers this spring.  At this point, the district hasn't announced any plans.

"I don't think, personally, my opinion, that we will ever be going back to that school when I walk inside of it and I just look at it," Wallace says.

But there's also been progress.

Power has been restored, activating the schools alarms, which means there's no longer the costly need for 24/7 security.

And the roofs have fixed to prevent more water damage.  And students haven't stopped learning.

"Children are resilient," says Dr. Deborah Parker, Principal at Erwin Montessori.  "There's something that my mother told me years ago -bloom where you're planted, so I think we're blooming at Alamance."

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

MISSING

"It was terrible," recalls Vanessa Stimpson from the night of the tornado.  "It was terrible. It was something that I'd never experienced in my life."

Stimpson's Ardmore Drive home was damaged so badly in the tornado, that she couldn't move back in.  For weeks, she and her family stayed in a hotel before finally finding a new place.  

But even with a new roof over her head, she's trapped in the past.  Her new place is a constant reminder of who isn't there.

"It’s been like something is cut away."

For decades, Vanessa lived with her brother Roy Stover.  She says he suffers from dementia and she served as his caretaker.  But with the scare of the tornado and the change from house to hotel, she lost him.

"He just took it on himself that he wanted to go off on his own and we never knew what was going on until the people downstairs told us he had checked out.  He had left."

She filed a missing persons report with police as soon as she found out on the morning of May 10th, 2018.  She hasn't seen or heard from her brother in nearly a year.

"I’ve learned to try and go ahead and try to survive because we thought we couldn’t survive not knowing anything, whether he’s alive or dead.  It’s like we’re in a dream or something and waiting to wake up.

She thinks there's a chance her brother could be in California, but she doesn't even know where to start searching.  Plus, she's in new home now so if her brother did come looking for her, he might not know where to find her.  She prays for any kind of communication.

"If he was okay, I’d be okay," she says.  "But I’m not okay.  I don’t function right.  We’ve been together all our life.  He’s my brother."

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

NUISANCE PROBLEMS

"I'm really thankful for God's grace, his mercy and his love because he kept me alive."

Despite all the gratitude, the past year hasn't been easy for Sandra Cook.

"It's been rough."

We first met Cook in December, when snow covered her tornado-stricken neighborhood right by Peeler Elementary.  At the time, she was hoping for a better 2019; hoping for change amid the constant reminders that the storm was there.

"It'll be a year that that tree stump has been uprooted and it's just ridiculous to look at," Cook tells.

The tree came from her neighbors yard and barreled toward her house in the tornado, nearly blowing one of her windows out.  Her home was damaged in other ways, and she had to stay with family for two months before she could go move back.  But when she did, the big stump was still there, twisted up in her fence. 

The City of Greensboro says it had an ops team doing tree work for a while after the tornado, but now, it's on Code Compliance to make sure properties aren't violating any codes.  But in order for them to get involved, a person has to file a complaint, which Cook says she's already done.

The City confirms Code Enforcement is working cases on her road, right by Peeler Elementary School, but it's a process.  Typically, the code enforcement officer will give notice to the property owner to take care of the problem.  The property owner has a certain amount of time to do so until the City follows up again.  But the home that was by Cook's house was damaged so badly in the tornado, that it was torn down and no one has been back to the property at all.

Cook is just trying to be patient.

"I'm not going to keep my mouth shut," she explains.  "I'm going to talk about this until God is ready for me."

A few blocks over, her neighbor Odessa Long is waiting, too, and says the City is keeping her in the dark.

"It's kind of eerie feeling you get when you drive through the community," Long explains.  "Particularly at night.  You come here and there's no lights an it's bad. "

The tornado ripped down countless light poles, but one by one, she says they were all repaired on her road except the two on either side of her house.

Long says she's tried countless times to contact the City, but always got tied up in the automated messages.

 "The City has just not paid us any attention on this side of town."

When WFMY News 2 went out at night to check, we found that most poles did have light, except the poles nearest her home.  We reached out to the City last week about the concern, and on Friday, WFMY News 2 learned that crews went out to Long's street and found one broken light and another missing.

"I'm afraid because there are three women that are single in this area and people take advantage of you when there's a lot of darkness."

The City says they've contacted Duke Energy to restore the lights.  It's technically a City problem, but Greensboro partners with the power company to provide the service.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

RECOVERY FUNDS

The City of Greensboro, along with partner agencies, says it received more than $800,000 in donations for tornado relief.  FEMA estimated giving out $1.2 million in aid after the tornado.  Then there's all the volunteers, from organizations to individuals, and the non-monetary donations like food, water, clothing, toiletries and other household goods that were impossible to keep track of, but so necessary to the communities impacted.

"We've made a lot of progress, but there's still an awful lot more progress that needs to be done," explains Mayor Nancy Vaughan.  

There's a bill in the legislature that, if it passes, would give the City of Greensboro $1M to help with tornado recovery.  Mayor Vaughan says some of that money would be used to buy up abandoned homes and empty lots, with a goal of rebuilding new homes for people to live in.

Gene Brown's team at Community Housing Solutions has had boots on the ground since the beginning --- doing their work through donations.  They've already partnered with the city to help tarp roofs and rebuild homes, and now they're on track to work on empty lots.

"Its a way to strengthen the community rather than leave a vacant lot there," Brown explains.

If the bill passes, the $1 million would likely be managed by a group called the Storm Recovery Alliance.  The group, which was created in the aftermath of the storm, is made up by the City and other partners like the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and United Way.  Mayor Vaughan says the group's funding committee would likely expand to handle the money.  It would go toward repairs and to purchase tornado-damaged properties.

"We would say please be patient," Mayor Vaughan explains.  "We know it's going to take a long time. but you have our attention and you've got our focus that we're going to rebuild these neighborhoods better than they were."

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

THROUGH PRAYER AND HOPE

There are many memoriable stories and faces of those who survived an EF-2 tornado's direct slam in Northeast Greensboro. Here are a few that leaves you feeling so inspired. The weaveing of their stories leave you with one common message: faith and hope will pull you through anything.

LISTEN: Stories of Hope, Faith and Survival