As the tornado passed over Tommy Hall Jr.’s house Thursday morning, a door smacked him hard, sending him face-first toward a stone countertop.
Standing Friday in the doorway of his family’s Brunswick County home, a hospital bracelet was still wrapped around his left wrist, and his right wrist was broken, supported in a sling. His upper lip sported a nasty black bruise, and he had two small cuts across the bridge of his nose.
Hall, who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army, was trying to make sure his daughter was safe when a tornado emerged from Dorian’s bands Thursday morning. Dorian churned slowly in the Atlantic and had yet to bring its full strength to North Carolina’s coast.
“I got hit with (Improvised Explosive Devices) and stuff when I was in Iraq, and those IEDs were nothing compared to this thing,” he said. “This, when that window busted, I was totally helpless. The wind and everything just shoved me against our stone countertops, and then I went down on the ground and couldn’t get up.”
While much of Southeastern North Carolina was spared from the worst of Dorian’s power, a Carolina Shores building inspector said the Halls’ home was one of about 40 damaged in a newer section of The Farm at Brunswick. Carolina Shores is a town of about 4,300 people near the North and South Carolina state line, roughly 25 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach.
As of Saturday morning, the National Weather Service’s Wilmington Office was still inspecting sites to determine where and whether tornadoes had touched down. Thursday morning tornadoes had been confirmed in Myrtle Grove, Porter’s Neck and Scotts Hill, but not yet Carolina Shores, according to NWS alerts.
While the twister that came through the Hall house has yet-to-be deemed official, the family’s experience showed how split-second decisions might have saved lives.
“The calm feeling before the storm? That’s true,” said Benjamin Hall, one of the Halls’ sons. “Then it was like everything happened in a hurry. My dad was trying to get us all in the closet before anything could happen.”
Dorian’s Thursday morning tornado
Friday afternoon, Tommy Hall Jr.’s adult sons, Benjamin Hall and Tommy Hall III, arrived to the home on Slippery Rock Way for the first time since fleeing after the tornado. To drive down the road, they had to give their address to a pair of town employees stationed at a barricade.
Then they had to pass a series of trucks — remediation trucks and television trucks and roofing trucks — all of which brought someone to the neighborhood to rip apart or stare at or hammer on a home.
Some of the buildings had gaping holes in their roofs exposing wooden beams. Shingles littered the ground, and a broken window had fallen to the ground beside the Hall family’s house along with pieces of its frame.
Benjamin Hall recounted the events of Thursday morning. Like many who had planned to stay for the duration of the hurricane, the Halls had stocked up on groceries and purchased a generator. He had been making coffee with his father when there was a rumbling sound.
“We were ready for the hurricane, but we weren’t ready for a tornado,” Tommy Hall III said.
Tommy Hall Jr. made sure his wife, Sharon Hall, was in the first floor water closet along with everyone else. Less than 30 seconds after she rushed to the interior room, Sharon Hall heard the window behind her shatter. Just seconds before, her head had been lying near the window.
“He got me up, and then as soon as I ran in there, pow, it exploded,” said Sharon Hall, picking up foot-long shards of glass to show what could have happened.
In Tommy Hall Jr.’s rush to check on his daughter upstairs, he had what he described as a “3-second” argument with one of his sons about who should go. That argument, family members said Friday, may have saved Hall’s life, as the window at the top of the staircase blew out around the time he would have been rushing by.
“I probably would have been blown out with it,” Hall Jr. said.
Upstairs, Alex Newsome heard her father’s shouts and found her way to an interior closet.
As Tommy Hall Jr. told the family’s story, Sharon Hall removed grounds from the coffee maker and scrubbed dirty pots left in the sink. She said she wanted the house to be clean for the insurance adjusters who would be touring it in the coming weeks. Earlier Friday, the family’s insurance company had informed them they would pay for hotels for the next four months.
“We’re going to probably spend Christmas in hotel rooms,” Sharon Hall said, “but I’m not complaining. You know why? A lot of people lost their lives in Dorian.”
Recovering from a tornado
Michael Carter, a Carolina Shores building inspector, was roaming the neighborhood Friday, continuing to inspect damage. Of the 40 homes harmed by the winds, Carter said he anticipated placing “no trespassing” notices on six due to the extent of the impact.
Since Thursday morning, Carter had been tasked with calling homeowners to inform them of the damage.
“They’re just devastated,” Carter said. “A lot of them haven’t even moved here because this is a new development.”
Across the street from the Hall house, Jasmine Hale arrived home for the first time to the house she shares with her aunt, boyfriend and 8-month-old daughter.
Poking her head out the back door, Hale said, “Look at our porch, look at our porch. I can’t bring Rose out here. This is frightening.”
She paused for a moment, taking in the scene. Animal crates had been strewn about, the porch screen was dangling tenuously by a piece of bent plastic and a toy basketball hoop was around the corner with its rim snapped off.
“Our remote is outside,” Hale said.
Back inside, glass and pieces of pottery were scattered about the floor. As Hale and her aunt, Bonnie Tkac, stepped on shards of a picture frame, their footsteps caused loud crackling and popping noises.
Upstairs, there were visible stains where rain water had leaked through a weakened roof. Rose’s crib had paint chips scattered across it, and the wall next to it was bowed.
“We have to rush and get all of my stuff out of here because it looks like this wants to fall through,” Hale said.
Tkac paced the first floor wondering what had happened and what the family should do next.
“We’re definitely going to have to rent a house, which I can do,” she said, thinking aloud. “I just don’t even know where to begin.”
Tkac had been in her first-story bedroom with her two small dogs Thursday morning when the tornado came, and the entire bed was pushed across the room. Upstairs, Tkac’s shouts woke up Hale, who grabbed Rose and ducked into a closet. Hale waited until it grew quiet before emerging. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the family threw whatever belongings they thought they might need in the car and fled.
When they returned Friday, Rose was still with other family members as the three adults expressed surprise at the extent of damage in the home. Tkac, Hale and Daiquan Bellamy, Hale’s boyfriend, huddled downstairs, surrounded by their belongings, everything in the wrong place.
“We can’t bring the baby back here,” Hale said.
Bellamy made his way through the house, taking stock of the damage and deciding what to happen next. He told everyone that he would start sweeping and handed Hale some cash.
“I’m going to send you to the store,” he told Hale. “Get a lot of trash bags, like big bucket trash bags, and get whatever else you think we need.”
As Hale drove away and hammers rang out throughout the community, a maintenance worker used a stand-on blower to push branches and debris out of adjacent roads.
The name of the device was stamped on its side: Hurricane Power.
This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.