Tornado fueled by Hurricane Dorian leaves N.C. island town wondering if it can recover

“I’m upset, but it’s gone,” one resident said, her voice trembling. “I don’t imagine at this point that I could come back if I wanted to.”

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By Phil McCausland

EMERALD ISLE, N.C. — Joann Davy, 83, clutched her kitchen countertop when she felt the tornado begin to lift her home, the water-borne twister flinging and shredding trailers in the mobile home park she had managed for 20 years.

Her thoughts flashed to escape routes as her beachside trailer rose into the air, but Davy’s mouth also repeated a quiet prayer of “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again. By her fourth short, divine plea, she felt her home come back to earth.

“It’s very frightening,” she said, sitting on the stoop outside her trailer a few days after Thursday's scare. “I called my son, and he came over and made me leave right away.”

A family looks at their destroyed home Saturday with an insurance adjuster after a tornado caused by Hurricane Dorian tore through a mobile home park in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, days earlier. Residents had just recovered from Hurricane Florence, which flooded the park one year ago.Ed Ou / NBC News

That fear turned to sadness for many in this close-knit town on Bogue's Bank, a barrier island off North Carolina's coast. As insurance adjusters made their rounds, it would soon come time for a decision on whether to try to recover or never return.

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The community had largely left ahead of warnings that Hurricane Dorian would strike their peaceful island oasis. But before the storm even began to bear down, a waterspout formed above the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday and turned these island refuges into unrecognizable sheets of twisted metal and broken glass.

“People here have lost their happy place,” Davy said. “Some folks have fallen all to pieces.”

Across the street from Davy, the once familiar line of trailers and mobile homes colorfully decorated with bright island themes had been leveled into a long stretch of debris.

Arlene Cotty, 66, sat in a chair and rested as two of her closest friends picked through the wreckage to find a few of her belongings. She almost lost this home in Hurricane Florence in 2018, but this time she wasn’t sure if she'd be able to rebuild.

“I’m upset, but it’s gone,” she said, her voice trembling. “I don’t imagine at this point that I could come back if I wanted to.”

Brody Napier, Tyler Holland Napier and Adina Napier, clean up outside of Artisan and Granite Inc. a countertop company in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, on Saturday after a tornado caused massive destruction in the area. The business owned by a mother and son had contracts out for the next three months, but the owners are also concerned about their 13 employees.Ed Ou / NBC News

The leveled buildings meant there was no refuge from the hot sun or the pudding-thick humidity on these long stretches of pavement. Nevertheless, Cotty's two friends continued to dig. Most importantly, they’d located her dog’s ashes and a keychain embossed with her mother’s image.

When Gov. Roy Cooper toured the Boardwalk RV Park earlier Saturday, he emphasized the needs of those affected by the storm in North Carolina, noting that 57,000 people in the state, including those living in the park, were without power.

“People on the ground who felt the effects of Dorian are our focus today,” Cooper said in a statement. “Getting food, water and medical help to the people in need is the first priority. Utilities are working hard to restore power and we want life to return to normal as soon as possible in eastern North Carolina.”

But it wasn’t only homes that were destroyed when the tornado made landfall. At least one family’s livelihood took a direct hit.

Mike Denmead, 36, and his mom Linda Denmead, 70, had operated a granite countertop business, Artisan and Granite Inc., next to the mobile home park since 2006. But the structure where they polish sheets of stone was pulled into the air by the twister, which raked it across the roof of the building that houses their showroom and ultimately tossed it 150 yards into a nearby waterpark.

When he saw the shattered granite and the collapsed roof, Denmead said he felt an overwhelming emptiness. His thoughts turned to his 13 employees who depended on him, as well as the nearly three months of contracts that they still had to fulfill.

Mary Wells (right) and Charlene Lewis help sift through the rubble of their friend Arlene Cotty's mobile home Saturday in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. The mobile home was destroyed by a tornado caused by Hurricane Dorian days before. Cotty said she wasn't sure if she would be able to rebuild again after she had lost her home a year earlier in Hurricane Florence.Ed Ou / NBC News

"I mean, my building, what am I going to do with that?” Denmead said inside his granite showroom, noting that his mother had just taken her first day off since Hurricane Florence this past Labor Day. “My guys: they rely on me. My clients: they rely on me.”

But while some said they weren’t sure if they would come back, Denmead said he felt confident that many would plan to rebuild.

He said he was trying to recast this tragedy as an opportunity — the alternative was far too gut wrenching.

“I can dwell on all the negatives because it’s the easiest thing to do, but what we need to do is just keep going,” he said. “Now we can rebuild and get things right.”