April 16, 2011, is a day that won’t easily be forgotten in Lee County.
That’s the day a tornado cut a swath through the county, destroying homes, leveling businesses and killing two people.
“It put everybody in shock and awe across the county,” Shane Seagroves, Lee County’s Emergency Management director, recalled.
The twister was one of the 30 that rocked North Carolina that day, leaving 24 people dead, in the largest one-day tornado outbreak in the state’s history, according to the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
Forecasters there have put together an online in-depth analysis that traces the paths of the meteorological conditions that spawned the outbreak.
The first hint of potentially severe weather was mentioned April 12, four days before the event in the American Forecast and Hazardous Weather Outlook discussions, according to the analysis.
The discussions continued each day with meteorologists monitoring weather factors such as wind speeds and directions, the path of high and low fronts moving from the Midwest into North and South Carolina, and began to see a pattern that prompted more concern, based on the website analysis.
By Thursday, forecasters saw a strong potential for severe thunderstorms and “expressed a growing confidence of a significant tornado outbreak” during the discussions.
On Friday — the day before the tornado — forecasters voiced concern over developing patterns with a “dangerous combination of conditions” capable of producing supercells, which are capable of spawning tornadoes and causing heavy damage, the analysis said.
By midday Saturday, the Storm Prediction Center issued a notice putting central and eastern North Carolina in “an unusual ‘high’ risk for severe thunderstorms, with a very high risk of major tornadoes.”
It was the only time the storm center has issued a “high risk” for the area between December 2002 and May 2019, according to the analysis
Meteorologists were notified mid-morning that “everything remains primed for a significant severe weather outbreak across Central NC from noon through 7 p.m. today.”
Seagroves began the morning that Saturday about 4:30 a.m. as he and others began setting up for the Broadway Our Way Festival scheduled that same day.
As the hours passed, Seagroves remembers noticing how the air was changing and developing an uncomfortable feel to it.
“It was very windy, humid and hot,” he said.
It wasn’t long before county officials were notified of a strong line of thunderstorms that were expected to move through Lee County.
Just after 1:15 p.m., a thunderstorm developed southeast of Lancaster, South Carolina, a town of about 8,500 located 17 miles south of Waxhaw and 120 miles from Sanford.
The storm moved into North Carolina, intensifying as it moved toward Wadesboro, 50 miles northeast of Lancaster, according to the NWS analysis.
As the storm continued its northeasterly trek into Moore County shortly after 2:30 p.m., it formed a supercell. Twenty-three minutes later, the storm spawned a tornado in the northeast area of the county, the NWS reported.
The tornado continued on its path, strengthening as it entered Lee County.
An assistant chief at the Lemon Springs Fire Department was the first to report the tornado, spotting it as it careened into Lee County on Eakes Road, off U.S. 1, Seagroves said.
The twister continued on its path and crossed Wildlife Road, cutting a swath as it moved toward St. Andrews Church Road, Seagroves said.
“Then it continued on across and hit the industrial facilities on Industrial Drive,” he said. “It came across Horner Boulevard, where it hit Tractor Supply and Lowe’s.”
From there, the tornado churned along Rice and Poplar Springs Church roads before entering Chatham County, Seagroves said.
The tornado claimed the lives of Lee County residents that day.
Michael Chambers was killed when a tree fell on his car on Lemon Springs Road. Michael Hunter died when the twister ravaged his mobile home on Rice Road.
Seagroves and emergency responders jumped into action once the tornado moved on and set up a command center at a county training facility on Airport Road near St. Andrews Church Road.
Seagroves spend the rest of the weekend coordinating people and equipment in an effort to clean up the twister’s damage.
It wasn’t until Monday that Seagroves finally made it to South Horner Boulevard and saw the twisted, mangled heap of debris that had been Lowe’s Hardware.
“It was complete shock,” he said of the destruction.
“You hear people talk about Lowe’s being destroyed. Until you see it with your own eyes, you don’t know what destroyed is.”
The tornado traveled through Chatham County to Wake County and weakened as it moved through Holly Springs into Southern Raleigh, the NWS analysis said.
The storm continued to weaken as it moved to northeastern Wake County and into Franklin County.
However, the storm regained strength as it traversed Warren and Halifax counties.
It spawned a second tornado that touched down in Roanoke Rapids, the NWS reported. The twister crossed the Roanoke River and broke up after moving into Northampton County.
Meteorologists rated the Sanford-Raleigh tornado, as it was named, as an EF-3 in Lee County with wind speeds up to 160 mph, the NWS analysis said.
It was responsible for more than 100 injuries along its route. More than 900 homes in North Carolina, many in Lee County were destroyed as were 6,400 businesses, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety.
The damage estimate statewide was $328,610,000; the Sanford-Raleigh tornado responsible for $172,075,000 in damages, DPS reported.
“It was by far the toughest day that I’ve had as sheriff of Lee County,” Sheriff Tracy Carter said.
The National Weather Service online analysis of the April 16, 2011, tornado outbreak can be accessed at weather.gov/rah. Under News Headlines, click on the second link for “Our new StoryMap looks back at the worst tornado outbreak in NC History.”
Paul Cagle will never forget April 16, 2011.
For Cagle, the day was one of survival for both himself and his business, Cagle’s Home Furnishings.
As he’s done for 53 years now, Cagle was working in his store, which was located on Industrial Drive back then. It seemed like just another day until chaos struck Sanford as a tornado leveled his and other businesses and many homes in Lee County.
“I’d just walked to the back part of the store behind the counter and I heard the wind,” Cagle said. “I said, ‘That sounds like a tornado.’ The building was rocking and I heard the metal pop on the roof and I went down under the counter.”
The tornado lasted “only a minute or so,” according to Cagle. He then crawled out from under the counter.
“I looked up and everything was gone,” he continued. “It didn’t move anything off the counter and nothing behind the counter. But everything else was gone — flattened.”
Cagle looked through the rubble and then began to think about reopening or rebuilding the business.
“I was able to save about 70% of the merchandise, but the building was a total loss,” he said. “I was able to find this building (on Lee Avenue) and get back in business.”
Cagle said he was scared, but didn’t really have time to think about it because the storm came through so quickly.
“I looked around — the buildings across the street — they were gone,” he said. “I picked up the phone, my granddaughter was living with me, and I called her and said, ‘You OK, Angie?’ She said they were fine. I said, ‘I’m fine, but the store is gone.’ ”
Cagle said his home was close to St. Andrews Church Road, another area hit hard by the tornado.
“It didn’t touch anything at my house,” he said. “We didn’t have much warning. It got a little bit cool before it hit. It was pretty warm that day, but then I thought about going back and plugging in an electric heater.”
Cagle then worked quickly to get back in business.
“I met with the insurance people three days later,” he said. “Then I started moving up here. About a month later, I opened up. This month, I’ve been in business 53 years.”
Across Lee County, other businesses were damaged as well. According to statistics published in 2012, the tornado hit 457 structures in the county causing $57 million in structural damage. Once vehicles and personal property were figured in, estimates said the tornado caused about $150 million in damage.
The Lowe’s store was flattened during the storm and became a symbol of the damage and then the recovery. The store reopened about five months after the tornado. As you enter the store, a plaque denotes that it was destroyed on April 16, 2011.
When Sheila Stevens thinks about the 2011 Sanford tornado, the first thing that comes to mind is fear.
“The first thing I remember is how scared I was,” Stevens said Thursday, just before the 10th anniversary of one of Sanford’s most devastating natural disasters.
“(The tornado) was in Carthage when I saw it on the TV,” she said. “The next thing you know, I get a call on the phone and it says, ‘You are in imminent danger. You are in the (tornado’s) path, you need to seek cover now.’ ”
“I grabbed the dogs, the blanket, all of that, slammed the door to the living room,” she said. “As I was running, I could hear stuff, it sounded like nails hitting our house. I ran as fast as I could, jumped in the closet.”
As the tornado swept over her house on St. Joseph Street, Stevens could hear the debris raining down. She stayed hidden for five or six minutes before opening the door, only to discover devastation.
Stevens house was still standing — barely — but the homes of her neighbors had vanished.
“It was like a battlezone,” Stevens said. “Every house in our cul-de-sac was either gone or damaged, tremendously. We lost 19 windows and two back doors. All the rails on our porch and all the siding on three-and-a-half sides of the house had gone.”
Stevens’ backyard was wiped clean, she said. Two trees had fallen just inches away from her home, scraping down the sides.
For the next week, Stevens didn’t leave her house, terrified of a break-in. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office was diligent about protecting the neighborhood, she said, but her house no longer had doors. Stevens stuck it out in her living room despite the surrounding devastation, a power outage that lasted 29 hours and urging by others to stay in a hotel.
“I was in a panic to not leave the house except to go to work,” Stevens said.”(My husband) Russ went back to work Tuesday. He wasn’t gone but about two hours when I called him and said ‘You have to take the rest of the day off and come back home. I cannot do this alone.’ ”
Over the next several months, Stevens and her husband slowly rebuilt, helped by friends, neighbors and volunteers, she said. It was a long, overwhelming process, but eventually, they got back on their feet.
“I felt very lucky to be alive,” Stevens said. “I never thought a tornado would come through here. And still, if you were to drive into St. Andrews, you can still tell where the tornado came through. You can tell the exact path ... because you can see the places that don’t have any trees.”
About half a mile away, the Hight family wasn’t as lucky. Holly Hight, then 26, was in the living room when her mother Bunnie saw debris swirling around in the air. Her father, R.V., was in the bathtub.
“She yelled at us, ‘Get in the closet right now,’ ” Hight said. “It was really fast. It kind of felt like you were in a very large car wash, with the sounds. The ceiling light fell from the closet. I kept thinking, ‘Is this how I’m gonna die? Is a 2-by-4 gonna hit me?’ It was just a very surreal experience.”
It took barely a minute for the tornado to pass over Hight’s house, but when she emerged, her entire world had changed.
“The closet was the only thing left of the room. The room around it was blown away,” she said. “Our house was gone, basically. It was just a moment of, ‘Oh my God, what do we do now?’ It was the first time I had ever seen my daddy cry. That, I will always remember, because it just hurt me so bad that I didn’t know how to help him.
“There’s really no words to describe the aftermath of it.”
Hight and her family were in the direct path of the tornado and thankfully, they survived. Over the course of its 63-mile path, the EF-3 tornado killed five people, including two in Lee County.
“I remember being very grateful,” Hight said. “I was the only one (injured). I got a scratch on my leg from the light falling, but other than that, we were all okay. We were together.”