New homes for tornado victims complete the transformation from hopelessness to joy
The tornado picked up Pearl Clemons’ house, lifting it off the foundation. The home hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Then the twister let go, slamming the structure back down.
“It’s a fearful feeling, knowing you can’t do anything about it,” said the woman affectionately known to all as Miss Pearl. “All I could do was say Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, take care of me and my daughter.”
The entire structure shook as it crash-landed. The force of the impact cracked the foundation. Pearl and her daughter, June, were safe, but the house was ruined.
The storm that hit Bertie County, North Carolina, in April did more than just destroy the house. It threatened to crack the very foundation of Miss Pearl’s life. She still had her faith, and knew that God had not forgotten her. But the 72-year-old widow was facing a future filled with uncertainty. She didn’t have enough money to rebuild, and didn’t know where to live or how to start over.
“When the storm came and tore my house up, I didn’t have any money to build it back,” she said. “I had about enough for two doorsteps.”
And yet, eight months after the dreadful storm, on the same piece of land where her old house once stood, Miss Pearl sat on the porch of a new home built by Samaritan’s Purse.
“Oh Lord Jesus, I’m just so happy,” she said. “I’m beside myself. I didn’t think I was going to be able to get my home back. But through my prayers and tears, it has happened. Thanks be to God. Lord, you didn’t fail me. You never fail me.”
Across the street, Lucille Harrell, another elderly widow who lost her house to the twister, also thanked God for her new home.
“I never gave up,” she said. “I knew God wanted me to have it.”
A Day of Devastation
The storm that struck on April 16 is believed to be the worst in the history of Bertie County. Two tornadoes touched down, and stayed on the ground simultaneously for five miles. The wide swath of destruction claimed 12 lives, destroyed 67 houses, and damaged many others.
“This was something that affected the entire community,” said Artie Johnson, a longtime resident who became a Samaritan’s Purse volunteer and then case manager for the rebuild project. “It was devastating. This county had never seen this in one disaster.”
Morris Ford Road, in the small town of Colerain, was particularly hard hit. There were 10 homes in the community. Nine were destroyed. Five people were killed.
Miss Pearl and Miss Lucille lived on Morris Ford Road.
Miss Pearl was home when the storm hit. She and June made their way to the middle of the house. A tree limb crashed through the ceiling almost directly overhead, but the two women survived.
Miss Lucille was in the hospital because of a blood clot. She had been scheduled to go home that dreadful night, but the doctors wanted to keep her one more day for observation. Her daughter and two grandchildren who lived with her came to the hospital to eat dinner. The tornado demolished the house while the family was away. It’s doubtful anyone would have survived.
Samaritan’s Purse responded immediately after the storm. Nearly 600 volunteers helped tornado victims by clearing debris, cutting downed trees, patching storm-damaged roofs, and salvaging personal belongings.
One of the first places we went was Morris Ford Road.
“Going down that street the day after the storm, it was like a bomb exploded,” Johnson said. “You’d never have known a house was there.”
After the emergency phase of the work ended, Samaritan’s Purse returned to Bertie County to construct up to 10 new homes from the ground up for people who lost everything and didn’t have the means to rebuild. We focused on the elderly who had little or no insurance.
Our staff had kept in touch with Miss Pearl and Miss Lucille, and they were invited to apply for a new house.
Both women were struggling to hold on to hope.
“The first time I saw Miss Pearl she was sad, feeling dejected,” said Andy Beauchamp, the Samaritan’s Purse construction supervisor.
Talk of a new home seemed like a dream in the beginning. But it soon became reality.
“When they told me they were building a home, I couldn’t believe the words,” Miss Pearl said. “I was just beside myself, knowing that somebody cared.”
As volunteers began arriving, as the foundations were poured, as the walls were raised, as the houses took shape, dejection turned to joy. As case manager, Johnson saw it on almost a daily basis.
“There’s been a transformation from hopelessness,” he said. “Through the interview process, and when we started building, you could see hope beginning to come back. It’s not only rebuilding homes, but putting lives back together.”
The primary bathroom in each house was built as a safe room to provide shelter from future storms. They have 8-inch walls of cinder block and reinforced steel, concrete floors and ceilings, and steel doors with three deadbolts. They are going in all Samaritan’s Purse rebuilds to give homeowners peace of mind.
Professional builders did some of the plumbing and electrical, but most of the work was done by volunteers.
“These homes are built better than any contractor, because they are built with love and prayers,” Johnson said.
Earlier this month, members of the community joined Samaritan’s Purse staff and volunteers for a very special occasion. Miss Pearl and Miss Lucille received the keys to their new houses.
“We’re going to hand the keys to two homeowners and say welcome home,” said Steve Gahagan, site program manager.
Miss Pearl cried when she received her keys.
“It is beautiful,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. I don’t have the words in my mouth to tell you what’s in my heart. I’m just so thankful. I just love everybody. And I thank God for everybody who came and helped to give me back a home.”
June, Miss Pearl’s daughter, also spoke.
“Today you gave my Momma back her smile,” she said. “May God bless all of you for giving her back her house. It’s a happy day today.”
Both women had another reason to be happy. They would be in their new homes in time for the holidays.
“My house was small,” Miss Lucille said. “God gave me a bigger one. I have a big family. We can all have Christmas dinner in my house.”