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Eight years later, residents recall devastating tornado swarm that pounded central NC

April 12, 2019 GMT

On April 16, 2011, a record 30 tornadoes touched down in North Carolina, destroying more than 900 homes and businesses and killing two people.

Sanford was one of the hardest hit areas, as the storms carved a path of destruction that was more than 55 miles long.

A tornado ripped the roof off of the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Sanford. Eight years later, the store, and much of the community, have returned to normal.

On the five-year anniversary of the tornado, Lowe’s manager Mike Hollowell recalled how he and his assistants herded everyone to a windowless break room in the back of the store. The building was flattened, but no one was seriously hurt.

A piece of corrugated metal hanging like trashy tinsel atop a sycamore tree stands as a reminder of that deadly storm outbreak.

Jim Paschal spotted it in the woods off U.S. Highway 421 near Kelly Road during an especially cruel April.

“I travel this road two or three times a day,” he said. “And I always look at it as a reminder.”

The twister drilled through Lee County and left the projectile, which should have fallen already.

“We’ve had several wind gusts, 50 to 60 miles an hour, and it’s still hanging there,” Paschal said.

The storm spared Jim Paschal’s house, but the tree keeps that day rooted in his mind.

“If the Lord wants it removed, it’ll come down,” Paschal said. “If not, it’ll stay.”

North Carolina has more than 1,500 historical markers along the side of the road, including one for the great mountain flood of 1916, Hurricane Hazel and a marker for the coal mine explosion of 1925.

But none to denote the disaster of 2011 -- unless we count a giant piece of metallic litter that rises above the beer cans and lost license plates, as if forever suspended by the gravity of that fateful day.

The tree is in a wooded area well off the highway and is not in danger of falling onto any buildings.

To this day, no one knows where it came from.