A Tornado is Not Bigger than a Community
In emergency medicine, emergencies can happen at any time. And despite the fact that we train to expect the unexpected, sometimes we are still caught unaware.
It was a typical slow night at Oconee Memorial Hospital. Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent public restrictions, volumes in this otherwise very busy community shop had dropped. Instead of the typical 20-30 patients per night shift, we were sitting on about 3.
The first warning that the night was about to drastically change might have been when our unit secretary mentioned the line of storms she noticed moving in from the west. Strong winds and rain were predicted, but nothing that had us worried. But in the early morning hours, radar data suggested conditions consistent with tornado formation. Then alerts indicated a tornado watch, and shortly thereafter, a tornado warning was issued as a funnel cloud was spotted just across the state line.
Still, we felt little sense of danger. Tornados in the Upstate of SC are infrequent and generally fairly weak as far as tornados go. We were well sheltered from the storm, only our vehicles in the open lot at risk. In the midst of the gustiest period, we listened as a 911 call went out over the radio for a traumatic arrest. As we prepared for the anticipated arrival, word was conveyed that the individual was pronounced deceased at the scene. Then, the front doors opened, and wheeled in was a hysterical individual with an apparent large wound to their neck, soaking wet and covered in organic debris, the apparent victim of a large storm-tossed tree branch. This was only the beginning. As the morning broke and the day progressed, the ED population would boom to a volume rivaling any pre-COVID level.
Anticipating the uptick in patient cases, support spontaneously arose in the form of two off-duty physicians who came to relieve me around 5:30 – the same time my phone alerted me to an Oconee County Special Rescue call-out as a response to the tornado that had devastated downtown Seneca and parts of Oconee and Pickens counties. My search and rescue team was converging on the scene to begin clearing houses and searching for lost or missing individuals. Taking leave around 6:00, I headed to our rendezvous point at the downtown Seneca fire station.
Without streetlights, navigating the dark pathways littered with debris lit only by clouded moonlight was no easy task. Turning into downtown Seneca, the devastation soon became apparent. This was no “minor” tornado. All along Oak Street were downed trees, broken powerlines, strewn building materials, bricks, and other hazards. The road was nearly impassable, and I could barely weave my way around the foreign objects towards my destination. Turning towards the station I could see a whole line of homes that had lost their roofs and porches, with powerlines completely toppled. An entire structure had been blown across the street and smashed on the sturdy trunk of a large tree, now just a pile of rubble along the side of the road.
People were just beginning to arrive at the station, and maybe 15-20 firemen, other special rescue team members, and police were present. The Incident Command was just being set up with the ICS commander giving out orders and requesting supplies and materiel required for different operations. Our rescue team was assigned to the Borg Warner plant, where much of the brunt of the storm was felt. The facility itself was destroyed, but luckily few personnel were present on third shift as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic, and we found no injured individuals. Our one rescue at the site was a friendly lost husky mix covered in an oily film and leaf residue. I later found its home about a mile down the road, blown off its foundation and partially demolished under the weight of a collapsed roof. The dog was lucky to be alive.
The afternoon found us assigned to the Mill Hill area of Seneca. This lower income neighborhood had also been significantly damaged during the storm, and most of the homes had sustained at least minor damage. Many buildings were rendered unliveable. Street by street in grid pattern we performed hasty searches and safety checks, once again, lucky not to find any serious injuries. We created extrication paths for those who required removal to shelters or delivery of perishables. It was miraculous with the devastation in central Seneca caused by this tornado that there was only one death.
Twenty four hours later a truly cohesive response had been organized. Individuals from all over the region and from several states away had converged on the city. Major city thoroughfares were already being reopened, and fallen trees were beginning to stack up along the edges of yards and roadways. Volunteer groups everywhere were cleaning homes and yards, and providing food and beverages for those in need. Everywhere people were thatching and covering roofs and siding. But some homes still lay vacant without activity, forever to remain that way. My assignment this day was changed from Oconee County Special Rescue to the state-led task force, SCTF-1, who had arrived on scene early that morning. Tracking out the community along Dalton Road the goal was to document damage to structures, declaring them structurally safe or as restricted hazard zones. By the end of the day, all buildings had been searched, and our work as rescue was completed. From here on out, it will be cleaning and reconstruction.
It is in times like these that loss can be felt so acutely, but people inspire and hope is rekindled. It is not the devastating storm, but neighbors helping neighbors, the cohesion of a community, and outreaches of love and kindness that defined Seneca these days. The motto of Oconee County Emergency Services has never rung truer: One county, One mission.