Devin Thompson doesn’t like to think about April and the storms it will bring. The month reminds him of the devastating power of the tornado which destroyed his family’s home and nearly took their lives.
On the morning of April 13, an EF3 tornado with winds of about 140 mph lifted the family’s North home off its foundation and rolled it end over end for several feet.
The house also fell on their vehicles, destroying both.
‘I definitely don’t
want to be mad’
The 38-year-old has since built a new home at the same location on Sharpe Road. This time it’s equipped with amenities such as hurricane straps to make it more secure. He has even contemplated building a storm shelter.
The memories of that fateful morning still linger in his mind, and he is somewhat anxious about the future.
“Emotionally, right now, I’m kind of chilled out because it’s wintertime. There’s not a lot of storms coming around. I’ve already thought about next April and what it’s going to be like, especially with how 2020’s been,” Thompson said.
“It’s no telling what 2021’s got around the corner. Hopefully it’s a whole lot better, but I’m very anxious,” he said.
Thompson has plans to rebuild his shed, which was also damaged in the tornado. It served as the mechanic’s workshop.
He suffered a fractured vertebrae, six fractured ribs and a collapsed lung in the storm. His wife, Amanda, a nurse, suffered a severe concussion with bleeding on the brain.
The couple’s children, 18-year-old Summerlyn and 14-year-old Johnathan, also suffered injuries. Summerlyn suffered a broken nose and bruised lip as well as a concussion, and Johnathan was impaled by some nails in his back and arms.
“Recovery-wise was just pretty much typical, just physical therapy and trying to stay focused to get back to work and get back to some kind of normalcy. Amanda is back to work part time. I’ve been back to work for about two and a half months now,” Thompson said.
He used his background in construction to work on rebuilding the family’s new home, which they moved into the day before Thanksgiving.
“That was our goal. It wasn’t finished, but we moved in. We tried to be in here before Thanksgiving. I was pretty much the contractor on this house, I just subbed certain things out and did what I could do.
“I did all the vinyl on the house, the windows, the porches, the painting, the lights, and I did all the wiring with some help from a wonderful gentleman. Every door, every screw, every nail, all the molding, you name it,” Thompson said.
His wife added, "If it wasn't for the people in this community, we wouldn't be where we are. Everybody had a part in it. They just helped put the pieces together so we could be in a home by Christmas. My husband shows me pictures all the time of all the people that came out that day (of the storm) and got all of our stuff out of the rain while we were inside. It's amazing because they treated everything as if was theirs.
"They found my wedding rings in the dirt. They found a lot of my other jewelry. It blows my mind how much support we've gotten throughout this whole ordeal. To this day, we still have people that are helping. I couldn't have asked for a better community to live in, that's for sure."
Thompson said remembering what happened to him and his family helps him appreciate how far they’ve come.
“In my opinion, you can look at this thing two different ways. You can take the high road, or you can just be mad and mad at the world. I try and take the high road and thank God for what he’s given us and giving us a second chance,” Thompson said.
He added, “I definitely don’t want to be mad because there’s no reason. It’s not going to change nothing, and it’s not going to fix nothing. I’m just thankful for every person that helped and every prayer, every text, every phone call.”
The family has received love from beyond their community with cards arriving from as far away as Ohio, Missouri and Florida.
Donations also poured in through a GoFund me account set up by Thompson's sister immediately following the storm.
Johnathan said he cannot forget the storm, but is grateful for life.
“It’s been a lot better than when we started off. Everything’s getting back to normal. I think there’s no forgetting that, but I try to remember it to kind of see how grateful we were. If God didn’t have his hand around us, we wouldn’t have walked out of that,” he said.
Summerlyn said, “I appreciate being able to remember because you realize how important family is. I’m very grateful. People have helped us a lot. Some people don’t even have a house right now, and we’re living in our house. So I’m very grateful.”
The high school senior is also planning her future.
“I’m planning on going into the military, the Navy, and to become a physical therapist. I’m excited,” she said.
Thompson said his wife enjoys being back at work because helping others is what she loves to do.
“She thrives to help people. That’s why she loves her job. She loves taking care of people. So she’s back at it,” Thompson said.
He said the community support received following the storm has indeed been “amazing,” particularly the help he received from his in-laws, the Rev. John and Barbara Sharpe, who live down the road from the family.
“It was people we didn’t even know. We’ve had people send money all the way from the middle of the United States that I didn’t even know. They just wanted to help. It’s amazing. It’s like that cleanup day they had that following Saturday.
“That was tremendous. What people don’t understand is once you have something like that happen, it’s definitely hard to see everything like it was. But once you see progress moving forward, you can start to close that chapter,” Thompson said.
As part of their new chapter in life, the family has added a new addition to the family, a pyredoodle named Tucker.
feat of pulling
Three tornadoes struck the county on April 13. One, with winds reaching 140 mph, killed two people in the Neeses area.
In Orangeburg County, a total of 45 single-family homes were damaged during the storms. A total of 29 mobile homes were damaged and 10 business/business properties were damaged.
The total damage was estimated at $3.2 million.
Orangeburg County was declared a natural disaster area, meaning residents who suffered storm damage were eligible for disaster assistance.
Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said the recovery process following the tornadoes was challenging, particularly since it came at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody was afraid, didn’t know what the particulars were on the virus or what to do. Should we wear a mask? So it was one thing dealing with the disaster and the cleanup and putting the county back together, but we had to implement and come up with new protocols on how to do disaster recovery in the midst of a pandemic,” Young said.
It was a learning experience for the administrator.
“We had to come up with ways to be safe and still engage the community and help them. We had to do community outreach and set up situations that were socially distanced when we tried to provide help with the documentation and through the different agencies like Red Cross, Salvation Army, FEMA, DHEC and all those folk. So it was a tremendous feat of pulling people together,” Young said.
He is no stranger to handling natural disasters, including floods and ice storms, but the deadly tornadoes presented their own unique challenges.
“Unfortunately, this was a situation where this led to a search-and-rescue scenario, where all the training and techniques that had been received all these years came into play from the volunteers and the first responders. It is critical,” Young said.
The administrator added, “It is something that did a lot to the first responders emotionally because they saw some things that they had never seen before. We thank God that we made it through. With the leadership of county council, myself, our staff, the first responders and everybody who helped, we put people first.
“So in the midst of a pandemic, a crisis and a budget crunch, we still felt like we needed to go out, do cleanup, move trees and do stuff in the midst of a pandemic, where we had no clue at that time of how we were going to keep revenue going.”
Young and Orangeburg County Emergency Services Director Billy Staley praised the efforts of first responders, volunteer firefighters, law enforcement officials, utility workers and other service workers who helped the county pull through the historic weather event.
Like Young, Staley said different approaches had to be taken with disaster recovery following the tornado, including sheltering people during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In a lot of cases, we would open up a school or a bigger shelter but, in this case, we actually had to put them in hotel rooms and keep the families kind of isolated together. We also had to rethink how we do damage assessments to assess the damages for FEMA,” Staley said.
“Usually those assessments are one-on-one, face-to-face. So we had to open up facilities and try to open up temporary locations for people to be able to contact FEMA who don’t normally have a way to get on the Internet. We had several departments step up to help us with that, like the library.
“The town of Livingston also stepped up to help us with letting us use the community center to set up temporary sites for the public to come so they could contact FEMA by the Internet or phone,” he said.
As of Sept. 1, he said a total of almost $3.5 million in FEMA assistance has been awarded to county residents following the tornado.
He said most people didn’t realize that three tornadoes actually occurred on April 13.
“The one that happened down around I-26 was more commercial damage. The one in Neeses and Livingston was more residential damage. We actually had a significant amount of debris generated from the storms up in the Neeses and Livingston area. So debris cleanup was a mission …. For the most part, we think everything came together pretty good,” Staley said.
He urges individuals to have a plan for severe weather days, including finding a “more resilient” structure like a brick home to ride out a storm.
“We don’t get a lot of notice when we have the tornadoes. We maybe get a few minutes of a head start with the warning sometimes, but it’s much harder for the public to respond rapidly to a tornado, or in advance of one because there’s just no huge warning,” Staley said.
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