Coronavirus, then tornado damage: For some South Carolina residents, there's 'nowhere to go'

Zoe Nicholson
Greenville News

SENECA, S.C. – Jermaine Gaines heard the emergency alert on his phone around 3 a.m. Monday warning him of possible tornadoes. He didn’t take it too seriously at first, but then he heard the wind and debris pelting the walls of his childhood home.

Not knowing what else to do, Gaines ran to the other bedroom, where he used his body to shield his 66-year-old mother as the storm passed. 

In the cold light of day, Gaines picked his way around the white-sided house. He found his lawnmower hanging from a branch among the mess of fallen trees in his backyard where a bottle of gin lay next to a loaf of bread.

“Who knows how that got there,” he said.  

Brutal storms moving into the East:Harrowing night of tornadoes in the South leaves 22 dead

A severe storm that brought a tornado in the area destroyed many homes and structures in Seneca, South Carolina on Monday, April 13, 2020.

Another surprise awaited Gaines out front – his porch is gone, the roof is punched open.

But, as he cleared his yard of debris, Gaines realized something else was missing – Oreo, his black and white cat, was outside when the tornado hit his home.

“I haven’t seen him yet.”

'What else can be thrown at us?'

On a few quiet residential blocks of Seneca, South Carolina, homes, apartments and restaurants were battered by a tornado that touched down around 3 a.m. local time Monday, according to the debris field analyzed by the National Weather Service.

Hundreds were still without power Tuesday morning and an unknown number of people were displaced from their Seneca homes after the F3 tornado ripped through.

On Monday morning, neighbors walked in small groups beneath blue skies. Some wore masks to protect against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most didn’t.

Jermaine Gaines cleans up debris from his yard after a tornado destroyed much of his childhood home Monday, April 13, 2020.

Others sat in folding metal chairs, staring in disbelief at fallen trees, shattered windows, missing roofs and downed power lines.

Kristy Martin said it was like a freight truck barreling down her usually quiet street.

First, she heard the hail. Then, the wind and finally, rain. She waited out the storm in her basement before heading to Dinas Brothers Restaurant, where she is both a co-owner and manager.

“I didn’t believe it was this bad until I saw it,” Martin said in the parking lot of the cafe, her back silhouetted by the ruins of the cafe's storage shed, itself about a 100 yards from its normal spot.

Jermaine Gaines, right, and Frederick Oglesby stand outside Gaines' childhood home in Seneca, South Carolina, on Monday, April 13, 2020.

“What else can be thrown at us?” Debra Simpson asked as she helped Martin and her sons clean up their cafe. They estimate the damage will run beyond $100,000.  

John Sims said it was the tornado was a familiar sound, like the cyclones he’s lived through in his native Australia.

“Things were already hard with the lockdown, now we ain’t got nowhere to go. All our stuff is gone,” Vaneshia Wilson said of her second-floor apartment, where winds took the roof.

Wilson lost all her belongings. Her son's, too.

“I don’t even have the words ... it’s that unbelievable.”

The Red Cross has activated in the area to help displaced and affected families. The organization said does not know exactly how many people have been impacted.

Those who have been displaced will be sent to nearby hotels, as congregate shelters are not safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Williamson, Red Cross Director of Communications for the Palmetto Region, explained.

Williamson added that anyone who needs help can call 1-800-REDCROSS. Donations can be made at the same phone number or at www.redcross.org