RALEIGH, N.C — The relief organization Samaritan's Purse on Friday turned over the keys of two homes rebuilt by volunteers eight months after they were destroyed by deadly tornadoes in Bertie County.
Lucy "Pearl" Clemons, 72, had nothing more than a plastic patio chair for furniture inside her new home in Colerain, but the expanded replacement to the 50-year old, wood-frame structure shattered by the tornado that struck her community April 16 felt luxurious nonetheless.
"I'll do like we used to do in the olden days, I'll get me a mattress or a pad and sleep on the floor," said Clemons, who took possession of the home where her daughter and granddaughter will also return. "I can do one room at a time. I will take it one day at a time."
Her new digs are one of eight being built for tornado victims by Boone-based Samaritan's Purse, the international relief organization headed by evangelist Billy Graham's son Franklin. Every week since mid-August, a dozen volunteers from as far away as the West Coast have traveled to Bertie County to form work teams that hammer, haul and fasten homes into shape from bare boards.
"In the path of the storm is where we're working," said Andy Beauchamp, a Samaritan's Purse construction supervisor from Mocksville who's been a general contractor for three decades.
Kevin Cook, 50, of Oxford, Mich., spent part of Thursday nailing together 2-by-6 boards that will frame the exterior of one of the six other houses on Samaritan's Purse's work list. He drove 15 hours south with two other volunteers on Monday to learn he'd be on hand to see the fruit of the labor of dozens who preceded him.
"I can already anticipate what the owners must be experiencing," said Cook, an associate pastor at the nondenominational Christ the King Church in Oxford. Those receiving the group's help were selected by a local committee from among those who would otherwise be unable to afford to rebuild.
The homes are one testament to the thousands of volunteers who swarmed to help communities across more than half of North Carolina recover from April's two dozen confirmed tornadoes that killed 24 people, half of them in Bertie County. One victim lived down the street from Clemons, who said the woman died after the twister carried her trailer home aloft like a paper airplane.
Within hours after the storms hit and the widespread damage became known, organizations like Samaritan's Purse, the North Carolina Baptist Men, Catholic Charities, Red Cross and Salvation Army ferried in volunteers from far away and around the corner.
Bertie County, home to around 19,000 people, has suffered more than most places after repeated disasters over a yearlong span.
Seven months before the tornadoes, Tropical Storm Nicole dumped up to 24 inches of rain on the area, causing days of flooding that damaged or destroyed more than 200 homes and businesses in the county at the western shore of the Albemarle Sound.
In September came Hurricane Irene, flattening millions of dollars of crops in the mostly rural area.
April's tornado "broke the whole house from the foundations when it picked the house up and put it back down," Clemons said.
She said she still has an aching back but no other lingering injuries after a near-miss from the falling tree that sliced through the home's roof and walls and caved in the floor. Her daughter, who was also in the house when the twister hit, suffered cuts when windows exploded from the air pressure, she said.
Clemons said she spent the past eight months staying with friends and then in a trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The $20,000 Clemons said she recouped from her homeowner's insurance went to Samaritan's Purse to help pay for homebuilding materials. Meanwhile, her neighborhood has come back to life as people rebuilt their homes or got trailers for temporary shelter, she said.
She said she's thankful to be home for the holidays.
"I don't have the words to say how much I feel in my heart," Clemons said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio