Tragedy to Triumph

by Jul 23, 2021Around Town, South Brunswick

When a February tornado caused three deaths and left a devastating path of destruction in Ocean Ridge Plantation in Ocean Isle Beach, the community rallied to help the hundreds of residents who were affected.

People compare the sound of an approaching tornado to a train barreling across the landscape, but Kathy Arancio didn’t hear it.

“When you’re at the front end, there is no horn or whistle on that train,” she says.

She and her husband, Joe, were awake when the EF3 tornado tore apart homes, trees and anything in its path at Ocean Ridge Plantation in Ocean Isle Beach. The Arancios’ home was one of the first to be hit.

“I thought I was a goner,” Kathy says. “I started praying the ‘Our Father.’”

A few streets away, Diane and Mike Keywan huddled in a bathroom to avoid injury.

“We were lucky we were safe,” Diane says. “The next morning in the light of day, we saw a giant gaping hole in half of our house.”

Lou Stamboni, who lives next door to the Keywans, is convinced he would not have survived if he had been home.

“I was in Florida,” he says. “I was very fortunate because my house inside took a beating. Pretty much everything in my house was destroyed.”

Ocean Isle Beach NC Tornado

Massive destruction
The National Weather Service reported that the EF3 tornado hit around 11:30 pm the night of February 15, 2021. It reached wind speeds of 165 mph when it plowed through Brunswick County and created a 22-mile path that was 275 yards wide. Homes and businesses outside of Ocean Ridge were hit, but the majority of the damage was inside this gated community. It is estimated that as many as 100 homes sustained damage. Two homes and the garden house were leveled to the ground. Hundreds and hundreds of trees, primarily the towering pines, were uprooted, felled or destroyed.

Barry Glick and Rich and Phyllis O’Connor died in the tornado, and 10 people, including the Arancios, were injured. Kathy received 15 stitches in her right arm, probably from the patio chair that flew through the house and landed over her as she crouched on the living room sofa. Joe received attention to his back where bits of glass hit him.

“I was literally pushed from the living room into the dining room and into the laundry room and buried by everything that came in after me,” Kathy says.

At least a dozen houses were condemned; many residents, including the Arancios, Keywans and Stamboni, had to find another place to live.

“Our house was actually lifted up,” Kathy says. “It’s a total take-down. When we saw the damage the next morning, we wondered how we lived through it.”

The Arancios salvaged some furniture and nearly all of their clothes, but “everything’s gone,” Kathy says. “Literally blown out the roof.”

The Keywans home will probably be a tear-down.

“I never saw so much destruction,” Diane says. “People were cutting down trees that were in our house.”

Both of Keywans’ cars were totaled. All of their furniture is damaged, yet the fine china, crystal pieces and Christmas decorations were untouched, and most of their clothes came through without being damaged.

“There is nothing I can’t replace, and we have our lives,” Diane says. “We are looking forward to rebuilding. Ocean Ridge has just proved to me how amazing a community it is. I wouldn’t even think of leaving here.”

Stamboni says when he flew back from Florida and saw the outside of his home, he was stunned, but the inside shocked him more.

“I came in and looked then turned around and went back out,” he says. “Everything was against the walls. Everything was full of glass.”

Some furniture and clothing were spared, and he is grateful that the urn with his late wife’s ashes was found. His treasured Christmas decorations were destroyed. Kitchen cabinets came apart. All the fine china and crystal pieces were broken.

“The back of the house was blown off,” he says. “The TV and patio chairs were on the golf course.”

Since the home has steel girders, some of which were twisted, the roof didn’t collapse, and he hopes to repair and salvage what remains and rebuild. “I want to stay at Ocean Ridge,” he says.

Kathy recites words of encouragement she received: “‘When it rains, look for rainbows. When it’s dark, look for stars.’ That’s what we do. We choose to celebrate.”

Tornado OIB Volunteers NC

The volunteer efforts
Brunswick County Emergency Services (BCES) and those in neighboring counties responded within minutes of the late-night tornado. Edward Conrow, director of BCES, says 911 calls came to the communications center, and he asked for additional backing. Between the sheriff’s department, fire departments and other emergency services from New Hanover, Columbus, Pender and Horry counties, more than 300 people were on the scene.

Donna Ciliberto, president of Ocean Ridge Master Association, received word of the disaster at 5:30 am on February 16 and drove to see for herself what had happened. In two-tenths of a mile she saw the flashing red lights on emergency vehicles and massive trees blocking the road. She snaked her way through to learn more.

After talking with firefighters from Grissettown Longwood Fire and Rescue, BEMC and Brunswick County Public Utilities, she organized a conference call for board members and Mark Saunders, golf course owner.

“We did a visual inspection and went door-to-door,” she says. “We, along with police and firefighters, made sure every resident was accounted for.”

BCES established a command center, and Ocean Ridge volunteers stepped in to help manage it. They organized teams, each of which had a purpose: speaking with residents who needed assistance, delivering food, responding to requests from those affected, moving logs and heavy debris, raking debris into piles.

Jeffrey Kemmerer developed a spreadsheet and kept track of the work orders, their progress and completion. His wife, Susan, took charge of food donations and organized volunteers to prepare and deliver it. Restaurants and grocery stores stepped forward with their generosity.

“We served 2,500 meals in 10 days,” Susan says. “What impressed me the most was the outpouring of community support. They were willing to help no matter what.”

Sheree Seben, a captain of the debris-management volunteers, says the biggest problem was finding large-scale equipment.

“We had lots of hands, but we needed bobcats and excavators,” she says, adding that people worked together to make sure the needed equipment arrived.

“Charity and community love was tireless every single day,” Ciliberto says. “Every single able-bodied volunteer [in Ocean Ridge] showed up.”

Ocean Ridge Charities Association (ORCA) handled the abundance of monetary and other donations coming in, says Maggy Schlink, president of the nonprofit. The management company at Ocean Ridge set up a GoFundMe page, and Schlink supervised the distribution of the funds. Schlink explains that since ORCA formed 10 years ago, it has organized drives and contributed more than $800,000 to causes in the county.

Tornado Ocean Isle NC

“The outpouring of contributions and support within Brunswick County was overwhelming,” she says.

Each of the people contacted for this story praised the immediate response and colossal generosity of Brunswick County and its surrounding communities. Local businesses, too many to name, sent supplies, food and volunteers. National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Operation BBQ Relief, Brunswick Christian Recovery Center, Church of the Brethren members from Pennsylvania all were helping as well.

Pelican’s Perch Bar & Grill in Ocean Isle Beach collected more than $8,000 in donations, added its own contributions and used the money to buy gift cards from local restaurants and businesses.

“It didn’t seem like a massive effort at the time,” says Sarah Walters, owner of Pelican’s Perch. “It truly felt like the right thing to do, so I did it.”

Ciliberto says it was humbling to see the outside come in to help and says Ocean Ridge residents were so grateful. “They were happy to be offered so much help,” she says.

The volunteer effort continued for 13 days.

“As a community we are going to come out of this stronger,” Ciliberto says. “You can tell that by how everyone came together in such a wonderful and loving way. Humanity was evident every day.”

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