By Billy Liggett

There are several very vivid moments from April 14, 2011, that stick with me — hiding out on the second floor of the Sanford Herald with my family after word of a tornado warning … laughing with my co-workers when all we saw from the storm was a toppled garbage can … hearing the scanner moments later that Lowe’s Home Improvement had been ‘destroyed’ … piling into a car full of reporters and weaving in and out of traffic to get to the scene … getting to that scene and seeing the destruction, hearing an eerie silence broken by approaching sirens … interviewing survivors … heading across town and seeing the homes leveled by the storm … seeing the home of a co-worker that stood in the twister’s path …

For a journalist, it’s the kind of story you think you’re ready for. You hope you’re ready for. The destruction, the stories of near escapes and survival, the immediate need to report on shelters and help — the F3 tornado that hit Sanford wasn’t huge on a national scale (massive storms had much bigger impacts in Missouri and Alabama earlier that month), but it was by far the most important story we covered in my four-plus years as editor of The Sanford Herald.

And we covered the hell out of it. It was the only story for a week straight … and it dominated our news for about a month. Jock Lauterer from UNC’s School of Journalism and Communication called us “the little newspaper that could.” Newspaper blogger Charles Apple called our coverage and use of Twitter (still relatively new for breaking news in 2011) “a template for how we all should be covering breaking news.”

But enough about us. Let’s talk about Sanford.

After a while, our stories were less about the destruction and more about how the community came together. The St. Andrews neighborhood — the hardest-hit residential area — became a blue tarped gathering site for FEMA and Red Cross officials. Churches and other organizations were quick to pitch in with shelters and soup kitchens. Charitable groups soon converged on Sanford to help rebuild homes.

And five years later, the commercial area flattened by the storm — Lowe’s, Tractor Supply and its neighbors — has become Sanford’s retail hub. Where trees once lay flattened now sits a Hobby Lobby, Marshall’s, Ross, Petco, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dunkin Donuts and much more. Lowe’s rebuilt, as did Tractor Supply. The only remnants of the storm are a few twisted trees still standing near Marshall’s.

Below are some of the front pages and inside stories from The Sanford Herald’s coverage five years ago. Click the images for larger views.