A little more than three weeks ago, about 125 of Clayton Everett’s family and friends gathered in the close-knit northern Pitt County community known as Whitehurst Station to celebrate his 80th birthday.
Tents were up. Food was plentiful. Children were running and playing, enjoying a warm May Saturday afternoon.
On Tuesday, some of those same people returned, stunned by the destruction left by a powerful storm the night before and shedding tears for the loss of an iconic building that stood for more than a century and served as a gathering spot for locals.
A tornado spotted about 7:30 p.m. by several area residents cut a small path on both sides of N.C. 30 about four miles from Bethel and five miles from Stokes, heavily damaging the 101-year-old Whitehurst Station country store, demolishing the building beside it, destroying two barns, smashing a pickup truck, uprooting trees, and leaving twisted tin and tree leaves strewn in several yards.
No injuries were reported.
The Whitehurst Station store built in 1916 remains standing, but was heavily damaged by a Monday night tornado. A store beside it that closed in 1955 was demolished by the storm.
“It really felt like a war zone; it was unreal,” said Darlene House, Everett’s niece and neighbor who rushed home from her job at CenturyLink in Tarboro after getting texts about a tornado touching down. House’s home was not damaged, but Everett’s home had a window broken, gutter work and roof damage, and his silver pickup was “probably totaled” by flying debris.
“I was really more concerned about my Uncle Clayton because he has had a heart attack,” House said. “ … I was just worried about getting out here and making sure he was OK.”
Everett was driving home as the storm intensity increased and said he barely got inside.
“I was listening to the radio in the car and got out,” he said. “I went to go in the door, and it was hard to open because the wind was picking up. When I finally got in and closed the door, it started getting louder and louder. When I looked back out, debris was going everywhere.”
Sharon Everett shows photos of the Whitehurst Station store.
Everett lived in the Charlotte area until moving to Pitt County about five years ago, but his family frequently visited the area. His daughters, Sharon Everett of Lexington, S.C., and Linda Hood of Columbia, S.C., both drove to North Carolina to check on him.
Hood arrived about 2 a.m. Tuesday.
“He told me not to come, and I said, ‘You don’t get to make this decision,’” Hood said.
As she looked choked back tears and looked the tattered Whitehurst Station store, Hood recalled summers visiting Pitt County. They would work in the fields, then take their money to the store, fill up a brown bag with “penny candy” and get a Coke in a glass bottle with ice forming inside.
“I would be the worst cucumber picker that they had, but I would make my little $50 and think I had a lot of money,” Hood said.
Monday’s tornado destroyed two barns and uprooted trees on one side of N.C. 30 before crossing and damaging the Whitehurst Station store, demolishing another store, and two damaging houses.
The country store was built in 1916 and was run by the Whitehurst family until Ralph and Dean Whitehurst retired and closed it in December 2006.
The storm ripped off the roof and broke all the windows on the front of the store. What remains likely will be demolished soon.
“This was the place to go,” Hood said. “We would always stay with my grandmother. It’s hard for me because I’ve got so many family members who have always been here. It’s part of my history, but this is where they grew up. It has a special meaning to me, but I hate to see this lost for all of them.
“The other thing is we have lost so many of the family members in recent years,” Hood said. “My mom died almost 20 years ago, but Ralph and Dean have died in the last 10 years. There’s only one brother left. It’s hard to see. They’re losing the family members, and now they’ve lost this, but we have the house. Granddaddy (W.K. Whitehurst) built them both.”
The store’s closing was one loss for the community, but the removal of the building will be another blow, House said.
“It just made you realize what you knew about this place has come and gone,” she said. “The memories are there. We’ll just have to hold tight to our memories.
Clayton Everett’s pickup truck was hit by flying debris.
“As long as it’s standing you feel like you can feel what you had,” House said. “But in a few weeks that will be gone.”
Tuesday began the recovery phase, and neighbors were quick to pitch in. The North Carolina Baptist Men offered to provide tarps for damaged roofs. SunEnergy1, which has an office at the end of N.C. 30 in Bethel, sent a crew of about 12-15 along with equipment to clean up fallen trees and debris.
Cody Jannise, field operations manager with SunEnergy, said pitching in is just about neighbors helping neighbors.
“It’s just about being a part of the community and helping those in need,” Jannise said. “We do hold Pitt County close to our hearts because we do have an office here, and we’ve been here for five or six years now. It’s just a matter of being able to help the people who do need it the most.”
About 12-15 employees from SunEnergy1 in Bethel came to lend a helping hand and clean up debris and toppled trees.
Hood was thankful for the help – and that no one was injured.
“All of this is a sheer miracle,” she said. “It’s a big mess, and it’s a lot to deal with, and it’s frightening. But my dad made it in the door, these people have shown up and come in and cleaned up this mess that I didn’t know what I was going to do with this morning. You see all your family and friends here to support you. I don’t know what more you could ask for.”