Second of three parts
SANFORD -- The tornado that pounded Lee County on the afternoon of April 16 hit like the random blows of a giant hammer, flattening a church here, slamming a manufacturing plant there, then skipping over a business right next door.
Recovery from the twister has been hit-or-miss, too.
In Lee - as in the 19 other central and Eastern North Carolina counties swept by 28 tornadoes that day - who owned a building, how much insurance they had, their financial situation before the disaster and their emotional condition afterward all have affected the speed of rebuilding in the six months since.
Nowhere is the post-disaster contrast more evident than on the south side of Sanford, where five-lane Horner Boulevard draws a line between Open for Business and Closed for Repairs.
On one side is Lowe's Home Improvement, whose flattened facade became the image of the North Carolina tornadoes through photos carried by newspapers and television stations across the country. About a third of the store was missing after the tornado, and much of the rest was littered with blocks from collapsed walls.
All 100 or so people in the store that day escaped serious injury by following employees' instructions to run to the back while the storm churned toward the front.
Within days, Lowe's, based in Mooresville, announced it would rebuild on the same site. Demolition began immediately, and on Sept. 8, more than 2,000 people gathered in the parking lot to celebrate the opening of the new building. Except for a tattered American flag salvaged from the wreckage and installed at the entrance and a piece of concrete from the old building used in a small memorial outside, a shopper coming into the store today would not guess what happened there last spring.
But the regulars will never forget.
"You never know how much you mean to a community, or how much they mean to you, until they're gone," said Lowe's manager Mike Hollowell, one of several people credited with saving lives the day of the tornado. "This is a small community here, and the shoppers and the employees know each other by name. To have the customers come back in full force and have them say, 'We're glad you're back,' when other people are still out of work, it makes you think. It makes you feel blessed."
Slow going at Southside
In the Southside Plaza shopping center, directly across the street from the bustling Lowe's, the storm took out the Tractor Supply store, a Big Lots that had been open only about six months, and a handful of smaller merchants. They all await repairs while their building's owners, leaseholders and insurance companies sort out who is responsible for what.
The downed power poles, smashed cars and what seemed like a mile of tar paper have long since been cleared from the parking lot, but the retail spaces look worse than they did the day of the storm.
Plywood is nailed to the storefronts. The roof that stretched over thousands of square feet of retail space remains open to the weather, and mold grows on the interior walls. Thieves have broken in to pilfer copper wiring.
Two months after the tornado, according to the N.C. Department of Labor, a worker surveying the damaged roof fell through an opening and was killed. Thomas Jacobs of Lugoff, S.C., became a belated third storm-related death in the county.
"Things are moving; they're just moving a little slower over there," said Chris Riggins, the county's inspections administrator. While Lowe's owned its building, Tractor Supply and its neighbors were renters.
"It makes it more complicated," Riggins said. "It can slow the process a little bit."
In August, Tractor Supply set up a white tent in the parking lot from which it sells big bags of animal feed, suggesting the company hopes to return. Corporate officials in Brentwood, Tenn., could not be reached. Company spokeswomen at Big Lots, based in Columbus, Ohio, also did not return calls.
In the areas beyond Lowe's and Tractor Supply, recovery is similarly spotty.
In residential areas, some badly-damaged homes have been razed and replacements are nearing completion. Others appear to have gone untouched, their roofs agape, walls twisted apart, jumbled contents still inside.
Eventually, Riggins said, local officials may have to intervene.
"You do want to have a certain amount of compassion for people and understand what they're going through, but there are certain things that have to be done," he said. "We are trying to get in touch with people on properties where nothing has been done, and determine what their intentions are. Your hand will be forced at some point."
Building back better
If Lowe's is one recovery extreme, and the Southside Plaza the other, SpanSet Inc. is somewhere in between.
The Swiss-owned textile manufacturer occupied a complex of buildings in Sanford's industrial district, not far off Horner Boulevard, in the path of the tornado. The wind tossed half-ton HVAC units around like flower petals and scattered building debris for miles.
It ripped the roof off the building where SpanSet workers did the finishing work on the company's polyester webbing products, such as tie-downs for cargo loads and harnesses for lifting yachts by crane. Quick work by employees the day of the tornado saved most of the company's machinery, but one 20,000-square-foot building was a total loss.
"We've been lucky," said Ken Milligan, company president. "Our insurance has been terrific."
Some businesses operators were not well insured or were already suffering because of the recession. Milligan said.
"They're done," he said, and won't be building back.
Milligan's company will come back better. Using a local contractor and mostly local labor, SpanSet will replace the brick-and-block structure it bought in the 1980s with a stylish new building with tinted glass covering a two-story office section, and natural light in the manufacturing area behind it.
Brad Simpson of Simpson Construction Co. in Sanford said he hopes to complete the building by February, maybe sooner.
"The local economy has had a bit of a boost from this," Simpson said of the tornado. While the work is welcome, he said, "This is not something you want anybody to have."
In designing the new building, architects added another element the old one didn't have. In one corner there will be a break room with poured concrete walls and a steel door.
It's a storm shelter.