AUTRYVILLE — The small town that sits at the westernmost point of Sampson was decimated in a matter of moments late Tuesday afternoon as a tornado bounced along N.C. 24 and into residential areas, ripping trees down, peeling roofs off several structures and throwing pink insulation from mobile homes everywhere.
The population of the town likely tripled for several hours Tuesday as many came in from other parts of the county, and much further than that, to take videos and photos before leaving. But many are now left to fix that damage, an effort that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday, and will be ongoing for the days and weeks to come.
Autryville firefighters are some of those people. A group of those men and women and other emergency personnel assessed the damage at the station, which was severe. They huddled around and talked, the area cordoned off with red tape. County manager Ed Causey joined them a short while later.
At least two mobile homes off N.C. 24 were destroyed as the tornado ripped trees from the ground, blocking N.C. 24 headed toward Fayetteville, then headed their way.
According to the National Weather Service, an EF1 tornado with wind speeds in excess of 100 mph touched down near Autryville at about 4:40 p.m. Tuesday. Officials said the tornado tore a 100-yard-wide path through the county for a sporadic 14 mile-stretch. A State of Emergency was declared in Autryville and town officials said Tuesday evening that a mandatory nightly curfew would be in effect from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. “until further notice.”
An initial tornado warning was issued for northern Sampson County on 5 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Minutes later, it was extended to 6 p.m., with “a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado” located about 10 miles west of Clinton, moving east at 25 mph. Residents in Clinton, Roseboro, Salemburg, Turkey and Hobbton were told to seek shelter immediately and brace for possible impact.
While there was some wind damage across the county, no place was harder hit than the heart of Autryville.
Torie Turner was standing in her yard as Gerald Locklear looked for a couple months’ worth of diabetic medication she had inside what used to be their mobile home near the intersection of West Clinton Street and North Gray Street. Photos were still hanging on the walls of the home, but there was no roof and personal belongings along with so much of that soaked pink insulation was strewn around the town, wrapping around street signs and trees.
“My nerves aren’t going to recover from what happened,” said Turner. “The wind was whipping around and it scared me.”
She was consoled by a few neighbors as Locklear kicked through the remains of their home.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Locklear’s niece Maryann Young came from Fayetteville as soon as she heard the news. The couple were going to stay with her Tuesday night as they begin to pick up the pieces. The property was one of several owned by Mickie Spell that was heavily damaged. He was in the area assessing the damage and cleaning up what he could.
“We were standing in there, looking outside,” said Locklear. “Those winds started and just ripped the roof clean off — peeled it like a banana. I started screaming like it was gonna take me. I was hollering for help and she was too.”
As darkness fell Tuesday, there were still numerous downed trees and power lines on Clinton, Gray, North and Hotel streets, along with several others. Some were using chainsaws to break up the downed trees. Heavy machinery was out on N.C. 24 to clear the bridge going to Cumberland County. By Wednesday, many of the streets had been cleared and power restored.
Emergency Management officials were on the ground assessing damage and determining how many households may have been displaced by the tornado event. Sampson County officials, including Emergency Management, Sheriff’s Office personnel, EMS and many others set up a Mobile Command Post at the Autryville Town Hall.
The prospect of opening shelters was considered, but ultimately not done as the need was not deemed dire.
“The mobile command post will be in Autryville this evening,” Assistant County Manager Susan Holder said Tuesday night, “but the Emergency Operations Center will stand down shortly. As we know, currently there were no injury transports and no one is seeking shelter.”
Red Cross was in the area in the wake of the storm, as was the local United Way. The Second Harvest Food Bank also set up at Hotel and North streets on Wednesday with food and water for residents needing supplies.
As he walked around his yard an hour after the storm hit, Locklear adjusted a Band-aid just under the back of his hairline. He suffered deep scratches to his head, neck and hands, which were still shaking.
“She was scared to death,” he said of Turner. “I thought that was it.”
A post on the Town of Autryville’s Facebook page asked everyone to offer prayers for those affected.
“Please be in prayer for our town. Such a sad scary day, but so thankful no one was seriously injuired and that there was no loss of life,” the post read. “All these things can be replaced.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.