Clean began in the Courtney community Thursday following severe storms and a reported tornado that touched down in the area late Wednesday afternoon. National Weather Service staff confirmed shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday “that an EF-2 tornado crossed into Yadkin County from Davie County,” based on their assessment of the area.
The report was shared on the U.S. National Weather Service’s Facebook page for Blacksburg, Virginia, which monitors this area. Wind speed was estimated at 125 miles per hour when it touched down at 4:17 p.m. and left a path of destruction for four miles, 225 yards in width.
According to the NWS report, “approximately 45 homes and other buildings were at least partially damaged along the tornadic path.” It lifted and dissipated northeast of Watkins Road.
Barry Willard, Courtney Fire chief, said he and another firefighter were on duty just before the storm hit and had received notification from neighboring Davie County officials that a tornado had been spotted.
“We both looked out the door and we could see the cloud coming and just a few minutes later we could see the whole funnel cloud coming toward the school,” Willard said.
Willard said this was not the first tornado he had seen, but it was the biggest.
In addition to many downed trees and power lines, the gymnasium at Courtney Elementary School as well as several homes were severely damaged by the storm. Mobile units and other parts of the school sustained some damage as well, said Yadkin County School Superintendent Dr. Todd Martin. Due to the damage, Courtney students and staff are not at the school Thursday.
Martin said there were around 35 people still at the school at the time of the tornado, including around 15 students in the after-school care program.
“They all sought shelter,” said Martin. “I cannot say enough about the job the principal did and the teachers and the after-school employees. Everybody got to shelter, kept the kids calm and everybody walked away unscathed.”
Martin called the event “traumatic” and said those there at the time were shaken up by the situation, but no one was injured.
“When you have something like that happen at a school and there are no injuries whatsoever, you count your blessings,” he added.
Principal Dr. Jed Cockrell was on campus at the time of storm.
“You always hear somebody say it sounds like a freight train coming and that’s exactly what it sounded like,” Cockrell said. He was near the main entrance to the school at the time of the tornado maintaining contact with a bus driver who was still on the route with two students aboard. When ceiling tiles began to fall, Cockrell said he knew they were experiencing a major weather event. The entire episode lasted mere moments though, he said.
“It wasn’t until I stepped outside the building that I really saw how bad the damage was,” he added.
Yadkin County Emergency Services Director Keith Vestal said the timing of the storm was lucky as most of the students and staff had already left for the day and no one was in the gymnasium. Vestal said the situation could have been fatal had anyone been in the gym at the time of the tornado.
Several individuals were trapped on Baity Road when trees fell on their homes. Vestal said seven families were affected by damage from the tornado and Baity Road remained closed Thursday as officials work to clean up the area and make it safe for those living there to return to their homes. One person trapped during the storm sustained a broken leg and was transported to the hospital, but no other injuries have been reported.
The damage was being assessed Thursday at Courtney Elementary School so that school officials can determine when students may return to the campus. Courtney Elementary School remained closed on Friday for students and staff and will be closed Monday for Memorial Day.
Governor Roy Cooper spoke Thursday afternoon to Kevin Austin, Chairman of the County Commission in Yadkin County. Gov. Cooper expressed his sympathy for the disaster and damage caused. He told the chairman that he would make sure Yadkin County had what they needed from that state and emergency management. Austin thanked the governor for calling and expressed appreciation knowing that the state had their back.
Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Erik Hooks is reaching out to county commissioners in other counties affected by Wednesday’s storms to ensure that state emergency management officials are doing what is needed to coordinate with local officials in providing support.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagam @RippleReporterK.