The Easter tornado that swept through downtown Seneca and parts of Clemson was more than four months ago, but scars – some fresh, some healing – still linger.
Towering pine trees still end in jagged tips, their branches and leaves snapped off in the 160 mph winds in the early morning hours of April 13.
Some homes in the Adams Subdivision– one of the neighborhoods hit hardest – sit remodeled, yard signs for their general contractor staked in the grass.
Others – like a brown lodge-style home on Ploma Drive – are as the tornado left them: walls gone, rooms exposed, the occupants, gone.
Bill Patterson said he saw the married couple who lived there carrying pets and suitcases while they walked up the steep residential road the morning after the storm.
“I haven’t seen them since,” Patterson said.
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But some homes in the neighborhood are bustling with activity – contractors in reflective safety vests work on gutters, half-repaired roofs are covered in roof tarping, awaiting shingles and piles of cleared debris sit on the roadside ready for pick-up.
In and around Seneca, repair work continues, but a return to normalcy is still months – or years – away for many in Seneca, where the April 13 tornado killed one and caused an estimated $200 million in damage.
‘It’s taught me patience’
Bill Patterson’s childhood home on Oxford Circle was one of over 200 in Oconee County that was totally destroyed, according to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division.
The family originally planned to rebuild within a year, but various delays meant that year would become a much longer timeframe, Patterson said.
“The interest rates are crazy low right now, people are buying and building houses hand over fist. And not only is our builder backed up, building materials are scarce. And if you can get your hands on the materials, they are ridiculously expensive,” Patterson said.
With those challenges and Jude, their teenage autistic son, in mind, the Bill and wife, Kelli, bought a new house a few minutes away.
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“It’s a great house… but it’s not this,” he said as he waved to the plot of land he grew up on and raised his family on, now just a parcel of red clay, baking in the afternoon heat.
They plan to rebuild on the family lot, Patterson just doesn’t know when.
“It’s taught me patience,” Patterson said of his year, which also saw his mother die in March, just weeks before the tornado struck and the pandemic worsened in the state.
Home repair work in Seneca is estimated to continue for at least another year, according to Kristopher Mason of local contracting company Carolina Roofing Rescue.
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Since the storm, the workload has “quadrupled,” Mason said.
Charles Dolly, a local roofer whose own home was damaged in the tornado, said his six crews are completing an average of 12-15 jobs a week, and he expects that pace to continue “deep into the winter.”
Manufacturing shutdowns due to COVID-19 have made building materials scarce, too, Dolly said.
“We’ve had to use some of our pull with manufacturers to make sure they keep our lines going,” the Seneca resident said.
Work on public infrastructure, like the electrical grid, will continue for many more months, according to city administrator Scott Moulder.
While the city was able to restore power to everyone within a few weeks, parts were fixed temporarily and need more extensive repairs done, Moulder added.
“We’re going back now and permanently repairing those particular areas. We still want to do streetlights and security lights and some of those other items that weren’t quite as critical in the beginning,” he said.
Hundreds applied for FEMA, SBA assistance loans
Once the city completes the repair work – like clearing debris and restoring the electrical grid – they will complete their application for a public assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Moulder said he doesn’t know how much the reimbursement request will be for yet since work is still ongoing.
For homeowners and renters, about $890,000 in individual assistance loans have been granted in Oconee County, according to FEMA.
Of the 672 households referred to FEMA for individual loans, 172 have been eligible with average loan amounts ranging from $1,755 to $5,205, according to data provided by FEMA.
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Most referrals – more than 300 – were not granted a loan due to a lack of damage or an existing insurance policy. It’s common for people who do not live in affected areas or have damage to their homes or belongings to apply for FEMA disaster assistance, according to External Affairs Specialist Crystal Paulk-Buchanan.
Patterson said his process to secure an individual assistance loan from FEMA was seamless, the entire process completed before the end of May.
“It helped in a lot of places,” he said of the money.
Other applicants – 499, to be exact – are still awaiting approval on their Small Business Administration disaster loans, a government loan for homeowners, renters, businesses and nonprofits.
The loan process through the SBA takes weeks, or months, longer than FEMA grants for a variety of reasons, Public Affairs Specialist Carl Dombek explained.
“Not only do we do a financial analysis, we’ll do a physical look-see to take a look at the damage… and there’s also coordination with insurance companies because we can’t duplicate benefits,” Dombek said.
Wind damage is typically covered in home insurance policies, Dombek said, so the government has to ensure applicants aren’t already covered before approving a loan. Loans for the South Carolina storms are low-interest – about 1.75% for homeowners and renters – and can be up on a repayment plan of up to 30 years, he said.
As of July 28, the SBA had approved about $6.5 million in home and business repairs loans in South Carolina, $2.8 million of which were for Oconee County residents, Dombek said.
“Outpouring of love”
While the FEMA grant helped the Pattersons get back on their feet, about $90,000 in private donations and free demolition work from a local company has helped the most.
“From the story you guys did and other news organizations… our story was viral for a few days. So, I think we got donations from every state, which is incredible,” Patterson said.
Locally, the city’s tornado relief fundraised over $750,000, most of which has been given away to residents, Moulder said.
“Some was a $400 electrical barrier repair, some were a $9,000 roof… so just depending on what the specific needs were,” Moulder said.
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Church groups, local contractors, excavators and builders have all spends days and weekends clearing debris and hauling it away, Patterson said.
Samaritan’s Purse, a non-profit Christian organization that provides disaster relief, said more than 900 volunteers assisted 219 families by clearing debris, tarping roofs, and salvaging belongings in the weeks after the storm, according to Alyssa Benson, media relations coordinator.
“But in all the places that I have never seen… such an outpouring of love from the community. I really think our residents probably gained weight because so much food was coming to their houses. At my sites, I’m turning away water all day long,” Dolly, the roofer, said.
Dolly, who said he’s lived in Seneca about 20 years, said he’s waiting to repair the damage to his own home until he can finish helping every other person in Seneca who needs repairs.
Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at [email protected] or Twitter @zoenicholson_
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