‘We are sticking together’: Schools organize tornado cleanup effort

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Click the play button to see scenes from a community cleanup effort following Monday's tornado in Elm City.
Drew C. Wilson | Times
Volunteers clean an Elm City yard of debris from Monday's tornado in an effort organized by teachers from Frederick Douglass Elementary School and Elm City Middle School on Tuesday.
Volunteers clean an Elm City yard of debris from Monday's tornado in an effort organized by teachers from Frederick Douglass Elementary School and Elm City Middle School on Tuesday.
Drew C. Wilson | Times

ELM CITY — Armed with rakes, wheelbarrows and a will to work, a small army of students, parents, teachers, administrators and other volunteers marched into Elm City.

The mission was to help townspeople continue their cleanup after a tornado blew in Monday morning, downing trees, damaging houses and cars and toppling power lines.

Staff at Frederick Douglass Elementary School and Elm City Middle School organized the support effort within hours of the storm and about 65 people met at the elementary school Tuesday and walked together into the parts of Elm City affected by the twister.

Hank Berry, a sixth-grader from Elm City Middle School, was part of the crew.

“It’s important because a lot of people don’t have power and they need our help because if we were in the same situation, they would come help us,” Hank said. “I think that it’s great that everybody is coming out to help these people that need our help.”

Kelly Thomas, assistant principal at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, said the tornado affected many students at both schools.
“We told everybody to bring whatever they could for disaster relief, so tons of water, paper products, canned goods, food, nonperishable items, anything and everything,” Thomas said. “We also came with rakes and gloves and everything to help with the cleanup as well.”

The Wilson Education Partnership partnered in the effort to collect supplies.

“This is a great community neighborhood,” said Wilson County school board member Henry Mercer. “It does my heart good to know how much is being done for this community.”

Angela Battle, fifth-grade teacher at Frederick Douglass, used to live on Main Street and has relatives who were affected by the storm.

“It’s just a family and a kinship in Elm City. It’s a community. We try to hep each other,” Battle said. “I wanted to come and let them know that we care. Frederick Douglass is a school that cares about its students and the students’ families.”

Katina Ruffin, a first-grade teacher at Frederick Douglass, said she was pleased to see the supporters turn out for Elm City residents.

“These are my students and our students. We are one family,” Ruffin said. “It affected us, the teachers, just like it affected the students.”

Conetia Barnes, a first-grade teacher assistant, grew up in Elm City.

“I went to school here,” Ruffin said. “I don’t consider this as a community. I consider this as a family. Under God’s protection, we are sticking together and that means a lot to me. Through it all, we can do this.”

Ruffin said she hopes the goodwill between community members will continue long after the storm.

“I just hope this doesn’t stop, that we can be a family beyond. It shouldn’t take a tornado to do this,” Ruffin said. “Our love and joy should be everlasting. I am just ready to get out there and work.”

Thomas Buchan, a seventh-grader at Toisnot Middle School, joined in the support effort.

“I think the crowd was great. It means we support our community,” Buchan said. “It’s scary, but at least I know my community will come out and support me and help out.”

Volunteers brought wheelbarrows and even little red wagons loaded with supplies to hand out to families affected by the storm.

“When you ask, this community here is willing to come full-force with everything they have and bring whatever anybody needs,” Thomas said.

Harvey Douglas, a volunteer from Forest Hills Baptist Church, was helping clean up a yard when all of a sudden he had dozens of hands to help gather fallen limbs alongside him.

Daniels Satterfield, a fourth-grader, and Loulie Harrison, a third-grader, both from Frederick Douglass Elementary, helped Douglas move cedar branches to the street in the back of his truck.

“That’s what you call a community effort,” said Douglas.

“I went through Floyd,” Douglas said, referring to devastating 1999 hurricane still in the memories of many in eastern North Carolina. “I have been there and done that.”

Cheryl Wilson, a Wilson County Schools assistant superintendent, said students benefit from the experience of turning a devastating event like a tornado into something good.

“It’s a great attribute for students to have and for us as Wilson County Schools to be able to instill that attribute in there in helping others,” Wilson said. “We have had a great turnout today not only of the adults, but they have brought their children along so they can see helping one another will make an impact on not only with one small family, but a whole community.”

Students in Wilson County will be returning to school on a two-hour delay Wednesday. High schools will begin at 9:30 a.m., elementary schools at 10 a.m. and middle schools at 10:30 a.m. Wilson Early College Academy and the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology will have a one-hour delay along with the WCS central office.

“Because of the delay, we will not have before-school care and will not serve breakfast. Students can be dropped off 30 minutes prior to the start time,” said Amber Lynch, public relations director for Wilson County Schools. “The day cares at the high schools are also on a two-hour delay. After school activities will resume on a regular schedule.”

Students have been home from school since last Thursday in advance of Hurricane Florence’s arrival.

According to Gordon Deno, director of Wilson County Emergency Management, parts of the county received 10 to 15 inches of rain. This resulted in flooding and damage to some roads in the county.

Heavy rains resulted in the overflow of four manholes Monday, according to Matt Shaw, city of Wilson communications coordinator.

The spills were located a Canal Drive at Kincaid Avenue, where 6,850 gallons were released, Beacon Street and Park Avenue, where 5,700 gallons were released, Mercer Street and Park Drive, where 4,250 gallons were released and Vick Street and Vance Street where 4,500 gallons were released. Altogether, 17,000 gallons reached Hominy Creek, while 4,500 gallons reached Toisnot Swamp.