Twenty-three tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down in the state of South Carolina on the morning of Monday, April 13, leaving behind significant damage to more than 1,500 homes. About 15 percent of those homes were in Oconee County, just miles from Clemson University’s main campus.
The storm devastated many Seneca residents. Several university employees went days without power. Some even reported their home to be uninhabitable.
As disaster response mode kicked in, Oconee County Emergency Services reached out to Clemson’s Emergency Operations Center to request assistance managing the coordination of volunteers. Mandy Hays, assistant vice president for campus life, worked quickly to enlist more than 40 university volunteers — primarily staff, but also some faculty and students — to serve five-hour shifts at Seneca High School, where Oconee County had set up shop.
Clemson volunteers were responsible for collaborating with Oconee County Emergency Services to ensure proper check-in and check-out of crews, which consisted largely of local churches and nonprofit agencies. They also answered tornado relief hotline calls to manage service requests and identify additional work opportunities, connected callers with local relief resources and logged all incoming work requests into a database to ensure service.
Alanna Landreth is an associate director for event services within Campus Activities and Events and served as one of the volunteer supervisors.
“I don’t have emergency management experience, but I do have experience supervising others,” she said. “We needed to figure out what they were doing and establish a good system. A group of us, including Mandy, Cara Snider, Claire Dancz and myself, came over Saturday (April 18) and got to work.
“It was eye opening, because one of the things we noticed right off the bat after being held up at home for weeks was that COVID-19 was the least of everyone’s worries. We started to hear situations about downed trees and piles of debris, and suddenly more and more volunteers were showing up to work. We had a group of about 15 who came from Anderson and said they took down trees for a living.”
Similarly, Randy McManamay and a group of more than 10 people from Beaverdam Baptist Church volunteered over the course of several days in the week that followed the Seneca tornado. On Wednesday, April 22, they completed tree and debris removal at four residences alone.
But those groups weren’t the only ones contributing to disaster response. University facilities staff provided mutual aid to clear roads and bridges of debris, sending trucks, excavators and personnel to various sites in Oconee County. First responders also provided mutual aid to law enforcement and fire/EMS partners in the community.
Kimberly Poole, senior associate dean of students at Clemson, grew up in Seneca. She went to Utica Elementary School, an area impacted by the tornado. Her mother and several members of her extended family reside in Seneca and the surrounding community and sustained significant damage from the storm.
“My mother had some minor damage and a few huge trees down in her yard, but she was fortunate because one split in half and fell in the opposite direction from the house,” Poole said. “She was without power for five days and her street was blocked off for a period of time because the surrounding damage was very bad. I have extended family members who lost their homes. Growing up in that area, it impacted a lot of families I have known for a long time.”
Poole was one of the first to sign up to manage the volunteer coordination, and on Sunday during her shift, she felt the impact of giving back.
“I was answering a phone in the emergency trailer when I heard a group of volunteers listing off different addresses they had been working at and I said, ‘You were at my mom’s house!’” she said. “I am so grateful to everyone who helped removed the trees from her yard and throughout the community.”
The work is far from done, however. The damage suffered in Seneca is estimated in totality to be in excess of several hundred million dollars. Workers and crews are still calling in and wondering how they can help. Because of the demand, Clemson’s volunteer support for Oconee County Emergency Services has been extended through April 29.
Landreth, a resident of Anderson, had been in Seneca for multiple shifts and plans to continue offering assistance.
“I was working last week and we got a call from an individual who was without power and they had a CPAP machine and needed a generator,” she said. “We knew generators were scarce, and while I was on the phone trying to connect them with a local resource, they screamed in excitement because their power had just come back on.
“That was really my first glimpse at people getting better from this. It was almost like a sign that things were starting to come together a little bit for this community.”
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