Photo Information

Maj. Gen. Carl Jensen (left), commanding general of Marine Corps Installations – East, explains the path of Saturday night’s tornado to Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among the wreckage of one of the demolished houses aboard the Tarawa Terrace housing community, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, April 15. Cartwright was briefed prior to viewing the wreckage by Col. Daniel Lecce, commanding officer of MCB Camp Lejeune, explaining how the displaced families are being cared for and the clean-up efforts occurring aboard the housing community.

Photo by Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

The wrath of the storm, the strength of the people; Tarawa Terrace, Jacksonville respond to tornado damage

18 Apr 2011 | Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

All day this past Saturday, the sky was overcast. Warm breezes blew through Jacksonville, N.C. as if a herald to the impending summer. As the day wound down the wind started to pick up and the clouds chased each other across the sky as if in some heavenly horse race. As the sun sank below the horizon and the clock hands rested slightly after 8 p.m., the residents of the Tarawa Terrace housing community aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune looked toward the southwest in horror.

From the clouds descended a mighty vortex over the New River, bearing right into the middle of the military housing community as if it possessed free will. Taking many by complete surprise, it bulldozed a surgical path of destruction, diagonally cutting the area in half and decimated anything that was unlucky enough to stand in its path.

After reaching the edge of Lejeune Boulevard, the grotesque funnel left the ground and continued onward, dropping its vortex now upon the Holiday City Mobile Home Community, overturning trailers with many residents still inside of them.

Ripping through the mobile home community, the tornado continued north-eastward until it shortly died out. Nearly four miles of Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville area was selectively obliterated, momentarily stunning the residents in its wake. However, these residents did not bar themselves inside their houses and sit in shock and wonder after the tornado hit.

“We had just gotten back from a fishing trip in Emerald Isle when it hit,” said Cpl. Dustin Marks, a maintenance management specialist with Communications Company, Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. “I had gotten out of the shower and just as I was leaving my room, a (board) crashed through the window.”

He and his wife Amy had no idea what hit them. Everything on their patio was taken away by the wind; the screen door was ripped off its hinges and debris slammed against the house. Yet, with such an unexpected event as this, they, like every other family aboard TT, reacted.

“It didn’t last more than five seconds,” said Amy. “After it passed, we went outside to go help the people in the houses with much more damage than ours.”

The Marks’ house escaped nearly unscathed. Except for minor cosmetic damage and a momentary loss of power, they were lucky. Unconcerned with the state of their own house, they ran outside in the pitch black darkness to aid the more unlucky – those like Ashleigh Seniw.

“My husband is deployed, so it was just me in the house,” said Seniw. “I was in the bathroom when, out of nowhere, it hit.”

Seniw’s house was demolished, trapping her inside the rubble of what was left of her house. It took four firefighters to eventually remove her from the rubble. Amazingly, she made it out unscathed.

After a detailed assessment following the tornado, 10-12 homes were completely destroyed, 40-60 homes sustained significant structural damage and 40-60 more homes sustained minor cosmetic damage.

However, there were some even more unlucky than Seniw. Ten residents were airlifted to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C., and until now, nine have been released following full recovery. The only remaining tornado casualty is an infant in critical condition, sustaining a broken leg, broken ribs and a punctured lung among other injuries.

With the quick, yet devastating tragedy that laid a path of demolition through the area, the residents both on base and in town showed their true colors of military and neighborly support.

“Not even a minute after the tornado passed, there were people outside with flashlights and flares making sure everyone was ok,” said Marks. “Shortly after that, people with shopping carts were going around giving out free food and a van made rounds with free water.”

The following day, after emergency teams cleared the roads of downed power lines and obstructing debris, the community came together in a completely unselfish effort to aid others. Marine working parties from Camp Lejeune combed through TT alongside civilian volunteers to pick up as much rubble and trash as they could while donation efforts for the affected families took off in full swing.

“Since (Sunday morning), donated food, clothes and children toys have been coming in non-stop,” said Raechel Richards, assistant director with the United Service Organizations – Jacksonville Center. “From Sunday morning to Monday afternoon, the two spare rooms (in the TT Community Center) are completely filled.”

Along with the food and clothing donations, Richards was handing out food vouchers for the base commissary for the families whose houses were deemed uninhabitable. She said that along with the community center aboard TT, the local USO was flooded with donations and requests to help the families. The families who were unable to return to their homes following the tornado who had no other place to reside were put up in hotel rooms, paid for by Atlantic Marine Corps Communities aboard the base.

“Everyone is coming out of the woodwork to help,” said Richards. “This is a perfect example of how military-friendly this community is.”

In terms of child care, the tornado struck Tarawa Terrace in the middle of the Saturday night care hours for the TT Child Development Center. While many parents were unable to retrieve their children before the havoc ensued, the skilled child care providers made the children’s safety top priority.

“I’m very proud of the providers and how they acted during the tornado and the loss of power,” said Marla Talley, director of the Children, Youth & Teen Programs aboard the base. “They cared for the children and acted accordingly during a time of emergency.”

Whereas the TT CDC was unaffected, the Tarawa Terrace I Primary School sustained significant damage from the tornado, deeming it necessary to close the building for the rest of the school year. All students from the Tarawa Terrace I Primary School will be moved to the Tarawa Terrace II Elementary School Thursday.

“All this volunteer work and donations go to show how great a community this is,” said Col. Daniel Lecce, commanding officer of MCB Camp Lejeune. “It is very typical of Marines and their families to come together in a time of need and work as a team, and the outpour of help with all of this is tremendous.”

With salvaging crews and working parties still working on the debris and rubble in the area, the worse has come and past and the bright light of community support shines on the Tarawa Terrace and Jacksonville area. Born from disaster are friends and neighbors, all coming together to rebuild what was fallen and continue on as a family.