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A tornado took their homes, but these SC neighbors stayed and rebuilt from the ground up

Lana Ferguson
·5 min read

Mary Kelley, 78, stood outside her almost-finished home along Lena Expressway on a recent afternoon, plotting and planning where her new flowers would go.

Next door, her neighbor Joe Brantley paced in front of his house as men poured cement into his new driveway.

The dog from another house down, the neighborhood’s welcoming committee, greeted everyone who stopped.

Friends driving by slowed to wave.

The cluster of five houses along a rural Lena road in Hampton Countylooks much different today from a year ago.

On April 13, 2020, a deadly EF4 tornado and storm destroyed these neighbors’ houses. It could not do the same to their spirits.

Around 6 that morning, the walls of four of the five homes on Lena Expressway fell on top of the owners as they huddled in bathrooms and closets with their families.

As the sun cleared the clouds, Kelley, Brantley and their neighbors carefully stepped around downed power lines and maneuvered through the remnants of their houses, searching for anything salvageable as they greeted friends and loved ones who had awakened to the news.

The tornado killed five people in the county, injured at least 60 others and damaged almost 200 homes, according to the National Weather Service. It traveled 24 miles from the Estill area toward Colleton County with wind speeds up to 175 mph.

Lena, an unincorporated community east of Estill, was a Southern Railroad stop between Columbia and Savannah community from 1899 until the 1980s, when the tracks were abandoned.

Still, tight neighborhoods have formed on the rural roads.

In the hours after the tornado, people parked in the grass on both sides of two-lane Lena Expressway, stopping to talk with homeowners. The road, where speeding is common, was so crowded that day that traffic could flow only one way at a time. Slowly. Most folks didn’t mind that morning, though, because they were there either to visit or to gawk at the collapsed homes and bent trees.

Some people donned face coverings, as the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun, but most were there to offer a comforting smile and tight embrace.

Although their homes were total losses, the tight-knit neighbors were happy to feel the warm sun on their skin and remember that physical things could be replaced.

... And replace is exactly what they did.

Kelley was the first to make headway on rebuilding in the months following. She and her daughter, Mimi, picked a French-style home much different from the previous simple brick facade.

“It’s a big change,” she said. “I love it.”

The kitchen is Kelley’s favorite room, and she’s itching to get back to baking her beloved pound cake from scratch.

Rebuilding on the same lot was never a question for Kelley. After a career as a nurse in Boston for 32 years, she had moved back to Lena in 1995 to take care of her father when her mother died.

“It’s a family thing,” she said. “I thought I would do just what my mom wanted me to do.”

Standing in the driveway outside her home, Kelley smiled. It’s new, it’s hers, and it’s almost done.

She also wants to finish furnishing the home soon and is excited about planting flowers in her garden as spring warms up.

Kelley is thankful for the community that supported her after the tornado, especially the Saxon family in Furman, which housed her the entire year. And she credits her faith with keeping her moving forward.

“It’s God’s house,” she said. “It’s only God.”

Brantley, a deacon at First Thankful Baptist Church, built the house in the 1970s that was destroyed in the tornado.

He, his wife, Carolyn, and their daughter Valerie, who lives nearby, had huddled together in the bathroom during the few minutes the tornado swept parts of their home away. When they eventually crawled out, they realized almost everything they owned was gone.

“We’re sure glad to be here,” Brantley said. “We could’ve not survived.”

The decision to stay and rebuild was also an easy one for Brantley. His family has been there for decades. His daughter’s home is in sight, as is his childhood house, where the family has been staying while the new one is being built.

The construction, just behind Kelley’s house, is nearly done. Brantley joked that when he saw how nice her house was, he decided to use the same contractor, Schumacher Homes. But he added that his wife and daughter took the lead on the design.

After completing the house and bringing in the furniture, Brantley said he’s ready to take “a little vacation.”

In the rest of the neighborhood, progress is underway.

An empty lot where a house once stood sits on the opposite side of Kelley’s house. It’s surrounded by remains from the tornado. Kelley and Brantley say they hope the neighbor rebuilds.

Three doors down, on the opposite side of Brantley’s house, the skeleton of a new home is taking shape.

Next to it is the fifth house, a home lucky enough to escape major damage from the tornado, but still needing maintenance and new windows.

“We are blessed,” Brantley said.

Although the neighborhood has begun its comeback, Brantley says memories of the tornado still linger.

He didn’t use to be wary of bad weather before the tornado. Every now and then, he gets nervous when the storm clouds roll through, especially after seeing the damage from the recent deadly tornado in Alabama and Georgia.

“We’ve been through it, too,” he said.