Our Opinion: To tempest-tossed, Wilsonians extend their helping hand

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First, we look after our own. Then Wilson County reaches out to our neighbors in need.

Volunteerism and philanthropy are on the upswing following Hurricane Florence’s heavyweight gut punch to the Carolinas. The storm largely spared Wilson County until Monday morning, when rain bands from the massive hurricane spawned a tornado in Elm City.

The EF-0 twister packed top wind speeds of 75 mph and carved a 1.2-mile path through town, according to the National Weather Service. Thankfully, no injuries were reported. The cyclone uprooted power poles and ripped towering trees from the ground, slamming them into houses and cars. More than 30 homes sustained damage and remarkably, the town’s two schools — Frederick Douglass Elementary and Elm City Middle — were untouched.

Teachers and administrators from both schools organized a community cleanup day Tuesday. About 65 people met at Douglass Elementary and fanned out to help residents remove tree limbs, rake up small branches and pick through the debris. The North Carolina Baptist Men Disaster Relief Recovery Team followed on Wednesday with the heavy equipment, sawing through gnarled limbs and thick trunks.

Elm City is a small town with a big heart, and residents came together this week to lend a hand to those in the tornado’s path. We applaud the schools for taking the lead and thank all who took part in the relief effort.

Apart from the terrifying tornado, Wilson County dodged a bullet. The twin river city of New Bern, our state’s colonial capital and one of its crown jewels, was inundated with floodwater. Wilmington, which sat in the storm’s direct path, sustained historic flooding. Robeson County, which was still recovering from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, was dealt another dizzying blow.

All told, North Carolina saw a stupefying 8 trillion tons of water from the massive, slow-moving tropical system that made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane and sauntered along the state line before plodding its way northeast through the Piedmont as a rain-heavy tropical depression.

As Florence’s dark clouds faded and the late-summer sunshine returned to Wilson, our residents and government agencies sought ways to help hurricane victims in harder-hit communities.

Wilson Energy dispatched eight linemen to Laurinburg, a public power community that has a mutual aid agreement with Wilson. They worked long hours restoring power in the Scotland County seat and returned home Thursday.

Four members of the Wilson Police Department — Sgt. Chelsea Sanders, Detectives Jordan King and James Holmes and Officer Brandt Kime — assisted with recovery efforts in New Bern, which sought all the help it could get.

Sheriff Calvin Woodard loaned 14 of his deputies to Carteret County, where waterlogged towns including Emerald Isle, Beaufort, Pine Knoll Shores and Morehead City needed all hands on deck. Sheriff’s office Chief of Staff Wanda Samuel said the deputies were “in high spirits” and stressed that the relief assignment did not decrease shift coverage at home.

Wilson County churches and businesses began collecting supplies, from bottled water and nonperishable food to mops, buckets, brooms, dustpans, bleach and latex gloves, to distribute to those in need. Numerous donation drives are ongoing, and collection sites include — but are by no means limited to — Thomas-Yelverton Funerals and Cremations at Evergreen Memorial Park, the Wilson Doughnut Shop, Gracie’s Village Shops on Nash Street and the Oh My Lard restaurant in Elm City.

Many, and we’d wager to say most, reading this have already contributed to the recovery effort in some way, whether through getting-your-hands-dirty volunteer work, purchasing food and supplies, donating to a disaster relief charity or showing appreciation to the first responders who put their lives on the line.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: For all the natural beauty and all the amenities our slice of eastern North Carolina has to offer, Wilson County’s greatest asset is its people. The spirit of giving and the folks who answer the call to serve others are what make our community truly special.

With the nation’s eyes on North Carolina and with thousands joining the many Wilsonians in rolling up their sleeves to help, our state will recover from Hurricane Florence. We’ll rebuild damaged businesses and destroyed homes. We’ll replace cars, boats and personal property lost to the floods.

And we’ll steel ourselves for the next storm, knowing that though we’re vulnerable to nature’s wrath, no tempest can shake our faith, dash our hopes or break our spirit.