A community united, forever changed

Local leaders reflect on lessons learned, progress made since deadly 2011 tornado
Apr. 15, 2013 @ 06:20 PM

The twisted metal of the Lowe's Home Improvement building and the wreckage of the homes in the St. Andrews community were among the images burned into the minds of Lee County residents from April 16, 2011. Local officials especially remember the countless unknowns in the immediate aftermath of that day's devastating tornado — which took two lives and resulted in millions of dollars in damage.

No matter where Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive traveled on that Saturday, the damage seemed to get worse and worse.

"As far as the tornado goes, it was one of those things where the world changed radically in the blink of an eye," Olive said. "It was horrifying. It was so scary because we didn't know about the loss of life."

Now, two years later, Olive said she remembers there was an inability to communicate that caused a feeling and sense of vulnerability.

"The scope of the damage was so hard to process," she said. "It was one of the things that was maddening about it. We didn't know who had been hurt or if anyone was in these devastated houses. We didn't know how many people were out there. And then we started to hear about the miracles."

Those could include the Lowe's manager who ushered people to safety inside of a collapsing building, the twister passing by a group of children searching for Easter eggs at the Hunt Springs Baptist Church, and the men and woman donning chainsaws who cleared the roads and driveways.

"You never know until faced with a certain crisis if you will rise to the occasion or not," Olive said. "And our people did in every respect."

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said the teamwork and dedication of the county staff, law enforcement officers and volunteers was evident in the days after the tornado.

"From an emergency preparedness standpoint, we are better off than we were two years ago," Crumpton said. "With what we have done with the emergency operation center and training of officials, we are better prepared and have a better understanding of what to do after a disaster now that we have gone through it."

Because of the county's proximity to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, emergency management and officials had undergone a variety of drills and testing that proved indispensable in the aftermath of the 2011 storm, he said.

"There were already some things in place in terms of how to communicate with one another," Crumpton said. "Where we really needed to improve on was communicating outside of the county and the agencies that came from outside."

Olive said the city rose to the tornado's demands and learned from its lessons.

"With our emergency drills that are overseen by emergency management, I would venture there is better attendance and attentiveness now," Olive said.

Also of note, she said, are the resolve of the people who were impacted and how others responded to their needs.

"We came away from that day with a pretty good perception of how we value each other ... ," she said.