3 years, 3 businesses, 3 outcomes

Apr. 15, 2014 @ 09:01 PM

A storm raged Tuesday morning, early enough that farmers were up but the sun still wasn’t. And as happens often in Lee County this time of year, emotions came flooding back along with the rain.

“When it’s thunder and lightning out, and the wind picks up, you remember it,” Gary Thomas said Tuesday afternoon.

The “it” he referred to is the tornado that came through Lee County three years ago today, killing two people and damaging dozens of homes and businesses, including his.

Thomas’s farm in the Broadway area took $1.2 million in damages to equipment and buildings, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars in strawberries, potatoes and other crops — including a 400-tree peach orchard that was wiped out.

Thomas got a little more than half of the money he needed to rebuild from the state and took out loans for the other $500,000. Now there are still a few crumpled silos that he hasn’t yet replaced, and the peach orchard is gone, but overall he said the farm is back on its feet.

“We’ve come back, but we’re still paying for it,” the 58-year-old Thomas said. “It’ll probably be 10, 12 years ‘til I pay off the debt.”

One road over, however, the situation at Watson’s Nursery isn’t as rosy.

David Watson lost five greenhouses and about 125,000 plants in the tornado. Unlike Thomas, Watson also lost his house, but he later rebuilt it after living for a while in his store with his wife, Gaye.

But not everything was rebuilt. On the road leading up to his nursery, two driveways lead to brick foundations where houses used to stand but owners couldn’t afford to rebuild. And Watson himself never replaced the greenhouses he lost.

In fact, he said, the only reason his business even still exists is out of dedication to friends and the community, not because it’s particularly profitable.

“I keep the doors open for one silly thing,” the 63-year-old said. “Twelve churches came and helped us, and 14 nurseries. Gaye and I talked about quitting, but I said if we quit, we’ll be denying what God sent us with all that help. I’m keeping open unless a bolt of lightning strikes me, and it’s God telling me to stop.”

And although the tornado certainly made things worse, it’s not the root of his problem, Watson said. That would be the economy — and he thinks he could’ve fought one or the other, but not both.

“You need new construction for this business, and that’s just not happening,” he said, punctuating his frustration with a spit of dip. “And it won’t until something changes in Washington, or we lower the property taxes here. ... A lot of my business came from shrubs, and the only people who buy those are people building a new house.”

So while Watson is struggling and Thomas is rebounding, a third man whose agricultural investment was harmed by the tornado is simply waiting.

Cecil Cameron, a longtime banker in Broadway, owns more than 150 acres of timber in the area. But the tornado took half of it, wiping out about 20 acres in one spot and 65 acres elsewhere. From a hill behind his house on Avents Ferry Road, he can now see for 25 miles even on an overcast day, spotting landmarks in Pittsboro, Harnett County and even Wake County.

“I’ve been running around these parts exploring since I was 3,” the 76-year-old said. “And I’ve never had this view.”

With the help of the N.C. Forestry Service, Cameron and a neighbor who also owns some timber land, 95-year-old Evelyn Sloan, have replanted. But because it takes 100 years or more to grow a sizable oak, for example, they might not be around to see the results of their post-tornado efforts.

“I’m just hoping it’ll be there for my grandchildren,” Cameron said, adding that his trees had been about 80 percent grown when they were destroyed. He managed to salvage some wood but estimates he lost well over $100,000. In a business that takes decades to prepare, he lost much of it in less than a minute.

But Cameron said he’s at least glad it didn’t last longer. He was in his carport taking a phone call — a warning about the incoming tornado — when it came through. He didn’t feel any wind but heard it, comparing the sound to “like 20 trains,” and watched the roof of his house lifting up from the air pressure before settling after the storm had passed through.

“If it had lasted two or three minutes, there wouldn’t be any homes left,” Cameron said.

Cameron said it’s a miracle more people weren’t killed, and Thomas — who was on a tractor in his field when the tornado came through — said his property losses can’t even compare to the value of his loved ones’ safety.

“Somebody said, ‘How can you be so calm’ [about the losses],” Thomas said. “Well, nobody in my family got hurt, and I can rebuild.”