'We'll never forget'
Many of the houses are new, their lawns neatly manicured. If not for a single house with boarded up windows, missing shingles, smashed cars rusting in the yard and weeds growing in the driveway, it might appear that the neighborhood in and around the 1200 block of St. Andrews Church Road was never ravaged by a deadly tornado — a twister that touched down two years ago today.
But Thomas Donnell remembers — and the house across the street certainly doesn't help him, his wife Jo or the rest of the neighborhood forget what happened April 16, 2011.
"It brings back some bad memories, but what can you do about it?" he said.
The home's owner died just before the tornado hit. Donnell said he believes the man's son owns it now, but whoever owns it hasn't repaired it. So it sits there disheveled — a sore thumb that elicits sore feelings.
The 71-year-old Donnell said despite his best efforts to block that day out, he just can't. He still thinks about it at least once a week. But with two years worth of hindsight, the 25-year Army veteran said he's glad he only has memories from that day, and not scars. He said he should have died that day, and he credits God for protecting him from the destruction that killed two people in Lee County and destroyed 116 structures and damaged more than 350 others — mostly residences.
"I was supposed to get killed," Donnell said. "I was going in the garage and heard the thing coming, and I come back in the house and said 'Get down, get down.' And just then, it hit."
The tornado took the front and side off his house, bounced a few feet — over the hallway where he huddled with his wife, granddaughter and great-granddaughter — and then obliterated the garage on the back of the house. None of the four of them were injured, but the images and fear left mental wounds.
"It only took about 10, 15 seconds, but it sure made a mess," said the Sanford native who went nearly seven decades only ever having seen tornadoes on TV. "That was some scary stuff."
A few doors down from the dilapidated house, 77-year-old Norman Keith lost some trees and took light damage to his property, and he said he thinks back to April 2011 often — mainly about the fast, compassionate and wide-ranging response. He said fire trucks came within 10 minutes, and the Lee County Sheriff's Office showed up a few minutes afterward. Later, volunteers from other counties came to the neighborhood to help out with whatever needed doing.
He also thinks about how no one in the neighborhood was seriously hurt or killed, considering how widespread the damage was. He said what he'll miss the most is the beautiful, old trees that used to dot the landscape — like the one from his front yard that he turned into a table after it was destroyed. Other trees went through houses, cars and more.
"That damage that was done in this settlement, without an injury, that was a work of God," Keith said.
Another person who can attest to that is George Caulder, who lives one street back from St. Andrews on Dunbar Drive — but not for long, if all goes according to plan. His house has been on the market since October, and he and his wife are planning to build a new house elsewhere in the county. Other than wanting something smaller than the two-story house he lives in now, which was almost completely rebuilt after the tornado, he only has one requirement.
"Where I'm building, I'm going to have me a bunker," he said. "I don't care what anyone says."
Caulder, a lieutenant with the Lee County Sheriff's Office, was out on patrol when the tornado touched down. In fact, he was one of the first to see it, and he still remembers how the funnel cut trees down at an angle as it descended from the sky.
"I got on my radio and called it in, and then realized it was going straight to my house," he said. Racing home on the edge of the fast-moving storm, buffeted by its winds, he called his wife. She was planning to take the dogs on a walk, but he told her to hide in the house. About a minute later, it hit. He remembers arriving to a devastated neighborhood and having to park several hundred feet away from his house because the rest of the road was impassable.
He sprinted home to check on his wife, then ran from house to house making sure his neighbors were alright. They were, but two of his friends died that day in other parts of town — Michael Hunter and Michael Chambers — the only deaths in Lee County caused by the storm, which killed a total of 24 people in the state.
"I got home off of work at about three or four in the morning," he said. "You could see everything — it was a full moon, and you could see it all. And I remember I got out of my car and just sat on the hood and broke down. Both of them had been killed, the neighborhood was destroyed ... it felt like the end of the world."
Caulder deals with death and destruction on a regular basis, responding to traffic accidents, shootings and other violence as part of his job. But there's a way to compartmentalize those tragedies, he said, that simply doesn't apply to more personal ones. He said he'll never forget the images of that day, and his wife still gets anxious during bad thunderstorms — something he said isn't uncommon among people who experienced the tornado firsthand like she did.
But despite all the bad, Caulder said that some good has come from the tornado. Many people got nice, new houses they never would've had without the insurance money, and people's kindness and generosity shined brightly.
"If I ever win the lottery, the Baptist Men are getting rich," he said, referring to one of many groups who pitched in to help in the storm's aftermath.
Despite the changes the neighborhood has seen, and the help they got, he said it'll never be like it was. He had a 200-year-old oak that's gone, plus a weeping willow and many pine trees he loved to look at. Two of his friends aren't around anymore. And although the neighborhood looks clean now, it's the post-tornado images that he said will linger with him and many others.
"If somebody had come through here now, they'd have never known unless someone told them," Caulder said. "But we'll never forget about it."