N.C. Wesleyan picks up pieces after storm
BY PATRICK MASON
Saturday, June 22, 2019
N.C. Wesleyan softball coach John Brackett received a phone call moments after a report of a probable tornado ripping through the college’s athletic fields around 4 p.m. on Thursday.
The call came from baseball coach Greg Clifton, who saw first-hand what had happened. Goalposts were twisted and bent, the trunks of pine trees snapped like a dried out wishbone and a scoreboard soared through the air.
The softball team’s equipment building was lifted and tossed into a nearby road. It was a scene that could have been ripped right from the Wizard of Oz.
“Two minutes after it happened, I got a call from Greg,” Brackett recalled. “I thought he was joking. But he was like, ‘Coach, I’m not joking. You got to come look at this.’”
The newly-named Brackettville softball field took the brunt of the damage. The back wall of a concrete dugout crumbled, fences were twisted and fallen and the 3-year-old scoreboard looked as if a giant had wrung it out like a wet towel.
Brackett had just finished mowing the grass at the college 30 minutes before the storm hit.
He was trying to beat the rain, which he planned to wait out in the gymnasium. After the first storm band came through, Brackett remembered that he had parked his new car near some trees and had planned to head back outside to move it out of harm’s way before the rest of the storm arrived.
But Brackett didn’t make it far before heading back inside. It was the sky that told him to hunker down.
“When I opened the door, the wind was howling,” Brackett said. “I tried to look to my right to see coach Clifton, and I had never seen the sky look so black before. Torrential rain was coming down and the sky was pitch black. I thought, ‘That doesn’t look good’ and went back inside.”
Clifton and some members of his coaching staff, including pitching coach Jeremy Johnson, were at the neighboring baseball field for a summer league game between Cary and Millbrook high schools.
The teams didn’t play the second scheduled game and were able to leave the area before the storm hit. But Clifton and members of his staff were still at the field where they got a too-close-for-comfort view of the carnage.
“It scared me, man. I saw the rotation and everything and it was weird to see,” Clifton said. “We were outside, hadn’t got inside yet, and I saw their scoreboard flying in the air over the softball field.
“Then I started hearing the trees cracking and falling near us. It just destroyed their dugout, and their storage building was out in the road.”
Johnson told the Telegram’s Amelia Harper on Thursday that he “heard what sounded like a series of gunshots as some nearby trees were snapped in half.”
It’s estimated that at least 50 trees were snapped in half or uprooted and strewn across the field. Members of the National Weather Service in Raleigh made their way to campus on Friday to assess the strength of the storm.
“The way the scoreboard was twisted, when that guy put it in three years ago he said something like this can sustain hurricane force winds,” Brackett said. “And I don’t know what happened, whether they’ll decide it was a tornado or not, but the way those poles were bent I can only imagine the force it took to do that.”
The weather service team later issued a preliminary report that determined the damage was caused by straight-line winds.
Brackett said he was both impressed and thankful for the outpouring of support from those around the college. Groups of people, including students, came by Friday morning to help clean up the debris.
The coach also saw plenty of people out on campus taking pictures of the aftermath, something Brackett can understand. His son majored in meteorology at N.C. State, and the interest in weather rubbed off the softball coach.
So when a tornado hit in North Carolina a couple months ago, Brackett took a drive out to see the wreckage. He was reminded of that trip when he examined the damage on Thursday.
“I remember I saw a house that had a flag pole, which reminded me of my scoreboard pole,” Brackett said. “I was just bent, parallel to the ground.”
Both Clifton and Brackett have coached in countless games where weather threatens to postpone or delay games. Those who coach and play outdoor sports can become amateur meteorologists of sorts as they aim to judge whether they can squeeze the game in.
But after Thursday’s storm, both coaches gained a new respect for the raw power of these storms.
“I’ve always done it, thinking we’ll be all right,” Clifton said of dealing with the threat of storms. “But now I’ve got a newfound respect for Mother Nature. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do, and I was about ready to jump in a ditch beside the field.”
Up next for NCWC will be an ongoing process of working with its insurance company in terms of rebuilding. The softball team installed a new backstop and netting, which wasn’t harmed. They will have to rebuild the home dugout and repair fences, though Brackett pointed out that it was fortunate that this happened during the summer months.
The Bishops already held their summer softball camp, and the team doesn’t report to official practices until September.
“It’s a little bit of a shock, you can’t believe what you’re looking at,” Brackett said. “All of the damage, is a bit surreal, but you just got to remember that stuff like this can be rebuilt and you can be thankful that no one was injured.”