Memories from the most destructive storm in Sanford’s
history and stories of a community coming together
to help and rebuild after the devastation
By Billy Liggett
Mike Hollowell was helping a customer at the home decor desk inside Lowe’s Home Improvement in Sanford on April 16, 2011, when he looked up to see employees and customers sprinting toward the lumber section. Curious about the commotion — and aware that big storms were predicted in the area that day — Hollowell hurried to the entrance to see for himself what had people seeking cover. Across Horner Boulevard, barely a quarter of a mile from where he stood, a swirling blackness engulfed the nearby Tractor Supply Company building. Without hesitation, Hollowell acted.
The store manager got on the radio with his two assistants and ordered everybody in the store to head toward the back, per safety protocols. As they ran, Hollowell looked up to see the roof on the giant warehouse start peeling back. The group reached safety just in time — the front right side of the store was obliterated, reduced to a pile of twisted metal and splintered wood. The rooms in the back remained mostly intact.
More than 100 people were safe. Amazingly, nobody died in Hollowell’s store.
“I remember when it passed, there was this eerie silence. Before we started hearing the sirens,” Hollowell recalls. “I looked out to see if everyone was OK, and I remember seeing daylight where a roof was supposed to be. [Minutes later,] I saw one of my assistant managers standing on top of a pile of rubble throwing [rubble] to the side. A pick-up that was parked by the lumber side of the building to escape the storm was pinned. A man and his young daughter were inside, and she had crawled out to find help. There just happened to be an emergency response seminar going on at the [nearby] convention center, and those first responders were on the scene faster than the fire department. They got that gentleman out of the car.”
“The tornado was terrible. But we had a lot of things going for us that day.”
“Terrible” is an understatement. The massive quarter-mile wide EF-3 tornado that hit Sanford 10 years ago this month followed a 63-mile path, lasted for more than an hour and hit estimated maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour. Five people died in the storm — two in Lee County — and hundreds of homes and businesses in its path were badly damaged or completely destroyed.
The Sanford-Raleigh tornado was one of 13 EF-3 tornadoes — and one of 178 twisters in all — to hit the Southeast region of the United States in the three days spanning April 14-16 in 2011. The event is considered today one of the largest recorded tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. However, the 38 deaths in the three-day span paled in comparison to the 324 people killed in the 2011 “Super Outbreak” that hit Alabama and Mississippi later that month.
In Lee County alone, nearly 500 damaged buildings and structures added up to more than $57 million in total structural damage. The hardest hit areas included the St. Andrews community — where some homes were completely taken off of their foundations — the business and industrial section around Horner Boulevard where Lowe’s, Tractor Supply, Static Control and other businesses sustained major damage, and to homes and farmland along N.C. 42.
But it was the destruction at Lowe’s on that mid-April afternoon that became the iconic image from the storm. National news crews converged in the parking lot in the days that followed, and Hollowell found himself the center of attention for his actions that day. Ten years later, Hollowell is still with Lowe’s and is now store manager of the company’s North Raleigh location. Like many who experienced or responded to the storm, one thing that sticks with Hollowell to this day is how much worse things could have or even should have been.
“I remember when we were running to the back, I thought to myself, ‘So I’m going to go out like this?’” he says. “The tornado was a direct hit on our store. But what saved a lot of people was that it hit us at an angle. From the front entrance, it went to the right, toward the lumber section [away from everybody]. We were in a solid building that is built to withstand a lot, but when you’re talking about an EF-3 and a head-on collision, anything can happen.”
Hollowell says he and his team followed safety protocols they learned during their training. After the chaos, he says everybody remained calm and began walking out of the store in a single-file line, much like you’re taught during fire drills in elementary school.
He wasn’t 100 percent sure everybody was OK. He says he remembers looking at the garden center and toward the lumber section and wondering if anybody was in there. He knew all of his employees were accounted for, but it was impossible to know if every customer was safe.
Nobody was seriously hurt inside Lowe’s that day. And by that evening, word of Hollowell and his staff’s heroics were getting around. Hollowell was inundated with media inquiries and interview requests over the next four days. It became more exhausting than the clean-up effort, and eventually, Hollowell asked Lowe’s public relations team to give him a break.
“I’d said the same thing at least 100 times,” he says. “Then I got this call about four or five days later from PR, and they said they had an important call for me. They said they understood if I didn’t want to take it.”
That call was from President Barack Obama. Hollowell took the call.
“He said he wanted to commend me and my team and called us true heroes,” Hollwell says. “I told him it was a team effort, and he called me a leader and a hero again. So I thanked him, and that was it. It’s a moment that will always stick with me … something I can tell my kids or grandkids one day. The president called me. Not many people have that chance in their life.”
Hollowell says the thing he remembers most about April 16, 2011, is how proud he was of his team at the Sanford Lowe’s Home Improvement. From the moment the storm hit, he says, his team was about helping others. And that mentality carried on well into the clean-up effort that lasted months.
“I never saw one person thinking just about themselves,” he says. “Everybody … it was ‘How can I help someone.’ ‘Let’s make sure everybody is taken care of.’ The customers acted this way, too. We were all watching out for each other and getting each other to safety. It was a terrible event, but I came away with a good feeling about the people around me.”
THE SCATTERED PIECES OF OUR LIFE
R.V. Hight lived through several hurricanes in his lifetime — he remembers the storm that hit his grandfather’s farm back in the 1950s — but in all his years in central North Carolina, he’d never seen a tornado.
And despite warnings the previous day and that morning that Sanford was in the path of a dangerous storm system that spawned twisters in Mississippi and Alabama a day earlier, Hight went about his Saturday without worry.
“I was getting ready to head out to Broadway for the Broadway Our Way Festival to judge a contest,” he recalls. “I remember a buddy of mine even warned me that it could get bad, and I told him, ‘Nah, we’ll be fine.’
“And then before you know it, it’s on you.”
Hight, his wife Bernice, his daughter Holly and their cat had just seconds to get into their closet from the time they saw the tornado — which had reached EF-3 status with 140 mph winds — just yards away. It all came and went in less than a minute, and when the wind stopped beating at his door, Hight saw sunlight shining coming through from where his roof once was.
The Hights’ home was one of several in the St. Andrews community destroyed in the storm. While his foundation remained standing — as well as most of his walls — his house was a total loss with holes in the roof, shattered glass and significant damage. His family would end up moving in with his in-laws before settling into a new home months later. Despite the loss, Hight considers himself more fortunate than some of his neighbors who lost everything.
Ten years later, Hight — who was an editor and writer at The Sanford Herald before moving on to Central Carolina Community College a few years after the storm — has shed all the negative from his experience and has instead focused on the many positives he experienced in the days and months that followed.
“The thing that sticks out to me most and the thing I’ll always remember was the visits from family, friends, neighbors and complete strangers. All the cards and phone calls. All the food and support. All the support that came to us from people we either barely knew or didn’t know at all. Their generosity lives with us forever,” Hight says.
He remembers that following Monday when the First Apostolic Church came through delivering sandwiches and drinks. The simple gesture touched Hight.
“When you’re sorting through your life trying to salvage what can be saved, these gestures just touch your heart,” he says. “Someone even came by with a vacuum. How special is that?”
Hight’s house was surrounded by downed and splintered pine trees, and his family learned early on that his homeowners insurance wouldn’t cover the removal of those trees. A day later, he saw the volunteers from Baptist Men in his yard removing those trees for pickup.
His daughter Holly says she will always be grateful for what she has, because she knows now how quickly a life can change.
“I think about the tornado every day when something doesn’t go my way, and I try to remember that feeling of loss and uncertainty,” she says. “It really has helped shape me into a better person in a weird way.
“And I will always be grateful to the community support and the churches that brought food and supplies and helped remove debris. They kept us alive while we were picking up the scattered pieces of our life.”
A DECADE-LONG RECOVERY
Steve Thomas was in Aberdeen, headed back to his tobacco farm on Castleberry Road and had noted black clouds ahead and heard the tornado warning on the radio, but didn’t think much about it until his cell phone rang.
“My son called me crying, saying everything was destroyed,” recalls Thomas, whose farm covers 350 acres. “We lost 40 barns, numerous tobacco combines, vehicles, tractors, sprayers. The Lord put his hand on my office, and that’s what saved my daddy and my son.”
In all, the damage totaled a whopping $3.5 million, which far exceeded the $1.2 million in insurance Thomas carried at the time.
“There’s so much that farmers have that you don’t have insurance for,” he said. “My shop was just full of so many parts, and when we needed to fix something we could just go in and get the part. After that we had to go buy them. So that was a trip to the store, a trip to town. We had to replace all that stock.”
Thomas was lucky enough to not lose any product — the plan that year had been to begin planting for the season the following Monday, and with the help of neighbors they were able to get cleaned up quick enough to only lose a week of the season.
The farm received a visit from North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler days after the storm — Thomas’ farm was chosen because it represented the worst of the damage the state’s agriculture industry received that day. Troxler then said it was “absolutely amazing” the state and Lee County didn’t receive more fatalities than it did.
Just last year, Thomas said his farm had finally repaid the debts he had to incur in order to recover from the damage. But even today, the threat of severe weather gives him pause it might not have before 2011.
“It brings back memories,” he said. “On Saturday, I sat here while it was hailing and there were straight line winds probably 400 yards from us. Lemon Springs Road still isn’t open. And what happened down in Georgia — I know what those people are going through.”
THINGS COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH WORSE
Shane Seagroves knew better than most that Sanford was in the path of something dangerous on April 16, 2011. The director of emergency services since 2009, and before that, the deputy director of emergency management and fire marshal, it’s Seagroves’ job to monitor dangerous weather and supervise the coordinated efforts for first responders in Lee County.
But even he was astounded by the magnitude of the storm and the damage it did that day.
“The first place I went to when the storm passed was the corner of St. Andrews Church Road and Carson Drive — and you know how smells and sounds will trigger a memory? I’ll never forget the smell of the pine sap and insulation blown everywhere,” Seagroves says. “For those first 15 minutes, all I heard was smoke detectors chirping. And not one person was walking outside. I feared the worst. We were just so very blessed — we had fatalities that day, but the outcome could have been so much worse. So much worse.”
Much like how COVID-19 has dominated Seagroves’ job in the past year, the Sanford tornado was his sole focus for months and was on his plate for the following two years. It was 2013 before Lee County got its final FEMA payment for recovery and debris management. Seagroves had to attend every county commissioner meeting in that two year period to provide updates.
“It was a massive process,” he says. “It took forever, but also looking back, it went by in a blur.”
The first 24 hours was about emergency response — directing the fire department and other first responders to make sure the injured were taken care of and people were safe. Responsibility then shifted to working with the sheriff’s office and police department to secure homes and stores that were damaged from people attempting to loot or take advantage of victims. Arrests were made for looting in Lee County in that first week.
The remainder of that first week was damage assessment. And the damage was extensive. More than 450 structures in Lee County were heavily damaged, and 116 of them were declared “destroyed.” Seventeen industrial facilities were crushed. Early estimates had structural damage in Lee County at $57 million. Total damage — including farmland — was more than $100 million, according to FEMA.
FEMA set up temporary offices in Sanford, and the Red Cross went door to door in the affected communities to grade the damage on a 1 to 3 scale, with 3 being the highest (a Sanford Herald headline from that week declared the St. Andrews community “A Field of 3s”).
“That’s the key piece to any disaster response, after making sure people are safe and taken care of,” Seagroves says. “We have to get an accurate number on damage. And it took a fairly large team to make that happen.”
Lee County went through a three-step process to make sure sufficient help would be coming its way. First, it was a county state of emergency and disaster declaration voted on by commissioners. Then the governor had to sign off on a declaration before the president could declare a disaster and free up federal funds.
When it was all said and done, Seagroves says Lee County government as a whole learned from the experience and will be better prepared when/if the next natural disaster comes along. Ten years later, he says one of the biggest differences between today and 2011 is the National Weather Services’ ability to not only communicate warnings to the public, but to also be more accurate with those warnings.
For example, Seagroves says, the warnings in 2011 were triggered only if a tornado or funnel cloud was spotted by a trained eye. Lee County only received its first warning when the massive storm reached the Carthage area, leaving far less time for preparation.
Today, warnings can be triggered by radars detecting rotation in the clouds — software that Seagroves has in his office. Warnings today also don’t have to blanket the entire county. If a storm is spotted on the Lee/Chatham border today, that area will receive the alert and not necessarily the southern portion of the county.
An example of today’s improved warning system — tornado warnings went out in Lee County as recently as March 27, but each of them were on the fringes of the county and didn’t set off county-wide alerts. Better planning also led several Lee County government offices to shut down early on March 25 when “supercell” activity was forecast in the area, although ultimately, the weather remained relatively calm that day.
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann says both the city and county are much better prepared today than they were 10 years ago. He said Sanford was lucky in many ways in 2011 — the storm happened during the day and it came on a Saturday when fewer people were at school or work.
“The weather patterns aren’t changing,” he says. “We’re still getting these huge swings in weather, and if this spring is any indication, we need to stay prepared for the worst. I encourage people to sign up for alerts and pay attention when these forecasts get serious. We’re much better prepared than we were 10 years ago, and we learned a lot from that experience.”
What sticks out most to Seagroves is the way the community came together in 2011 to help each other out during a time of great need.
“I’ve gone to multiple states and taught classes on emergency planning, and I go over everything we learned from that storm in 2011,” Seagroves says. “But every time, I also brag about the way neighbors helped their neighbors. Our community came together in a way I’d never seen before, whether it was delivering food, helping with clean-up or putting together fundraisers to help those who needed it.”
Have a memory from the 2011 tornado that you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this story on Facebook, and we’ll share your memories and experiences in an online story on April 16 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the storm. Also, view this story online to see videos from a decade ago.
Gordon Anderson contributed to this article