Freight train then chainsaws: Tornado leaves audible imprint across Zebulon, Wendell

May 15, 2019 GMT

Residents of Zebulon and Wendell were spending time Tuesday helping neighbors and working around the house to clean up after Monday’s powerful storms.

An EF-2 tornado with maximum winds of 111 to 135 mph that roared through eastern Wake County was on the ground for almost 18 miles, from 4 miles northeast of Knightdale to 4 miles north-northwest of Bailey, uprooting trees and damaging homes and roads.

Allyson Hocutt said the storm made a sound she will never forget. She lives in mobile home and took shelter in a home next door.

“It took a roof off the storage building. It knocked off shingles off the house. It busted out some windows in the single-wide. It was definitely a tornado. I heard the freight train,” she said.


Brian Haines, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Raleigh, was touring eastern Wake County, tracking the clues the tornado left behind.

“Look over there: There’s a tree uprooted. There’s another tree uprooted. Any type of shingle loss, these are all things we are looking for to rate the tornado,” he said.

The tornado initially touched down just west of Rolesville Road. National Weather Service spotters noted a home with exterior walls collapsed, several metal farm buildings blown to bits, and a flipped RV.

Haines said he’s done five to 10 tornado surveys, and the damage he saw Tuesday was among the worst he’d seen.

“We always go back and look at the game film. There’s always room for improvement. We try to do the best that we can.”

His study of the storms’ aftermath improves predictions for the future.

“That’s why we’re here, to protect the citizens of North Carolina, and we’re going to keep getting better and better,” he said.

Ike and Brenda Smiley credited the WRAL Weather app with the warning that sent them into hiding. Ike Smiley was about to leave in his truck, but his wife called him back.

“I said, ‘You can’t go anywhere. I just heard the alarm. Elizabeth (Gardner) said get in your safe place,’” Brenda Smiley said.

The Smileys huddled in their closet when the storm hit, and they emerged to find a their property blanketed with downed trees and branches.

“We had to cut our way out of the driveway,” Ike Smiley said.

Baptists on Mission brought chainsaws to their neighborhood and spent Tuesday chopping downed trees too massive to move.

“We are out here to help them regardless of who they are, and we are here because God has blessed us. We are here to help,” said Jimmy Lawrence.


The group, known for disaster relief worldwide, is working out of a local church so volunteers can reach those homeowners in need.

Darrell Alford, the deputy director and chief of operations for Wake County’s fire services/operations, said the tornado was on the ground for up to 8 miles before lifting off the ground near a Walmart.

“We are very thankful to report we had no injuries that were transported by EMS units as a result of this storm,” Alford said.

The storm system turned severe shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, officials said.

Alford said the Wake County emergency dispatch center received more than 60 calls in the first hour as the storm moved through the region.

Nine other fire agencies and several law enforcement agencies responded to Zebulon to help with storm recovery, Alford said.

As a result of the weather, East Wake Academy opened two hours late Tuesday.

“We need to make sure power is restored to campus and to give our families time to assess their surroundings in the morning. If we do not have power – families will be informed before 7:30 a.m.,” school officials posted on Facebook.