The cleanup continues in Mullica Hill and other parts of Gloucester County

Cows peer out of their damaged shelter

Cows on Wellacrest Farm in Mullica Hill, N.J., peer out of their damaged shelter a week after a tornado swept through, heavily damaging the farm's structures and killing more than a dozen cows. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Life is slowly getting back to normal at New Jersey’s largest dairy farm.

Wellacrest Farms in Mullica Hill was in the path of an F3 tornado that formed as remnants of Hurricane Ida moved through. It was one of seven that touched down in the region.

Workers were getting ready to harvest corn to make feed for the animals at the time.

“We had all of our machines hooked up, ready to start last Thursday, then the tornado hit Wednesday night,” said Eric Eachus, the farm’s vice president. “A lot of our equipment is damaged, that we do our harvesting with, plus a lot of our storage is all completely destroyed.”

The tornado took down one of their tall storage silos that was built in the mid-1970s, according to Eachus, a third-generation member of the family that has owned the land since 1943. The other tall silo was being demolished due to severe damage sustained during the storm.

“My dad says that when they built them … the salesman said that they were tornado-proof, but apparently not.”

Workers prepare to pull down the one grain silo still standing at Wellacrest Farms
Workers prepare to pull down the one grain silo still standing at Wellacrest Farms in Mullica Hill. It was left structurally unsound after a tornado swept through the farm. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Eachus adds that neither he nor his father has ever seen a tornado like the one that went through the farm.

“It’s like what you see in like a movie or something,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in New Jersey normally.”

Eachus said it will be at least a year, “maybe longer,” before the farm returns to where it was before the tornado, but conceded, “I have no idea.”

For now, the cleanup continues at Wellacrest Farms and elsewhere along the tornado’s path.

According to the National Weather Service in Mt. Holly, N.J., the tornado traveled a 13-mile path, beginning one mile southeast of Harrisonville before lifting one mile southeast of Deptford. The twister was 400 yards wide and traveled a diagonal line through Mullica Hill, Harrison Township, Mantua, and Wenonah.

“It wasn’t a small tornado,” said Vince Voltaggio, Gloucester County Director of Public Works and engineer. He said the roads were completely blocked by trees  once the funnel cloud lifted.

“Trees were down, houses were damaged or gone,” he said. “But then maybe a block or two the other way, it almost looked like nothing happened,” he added.

Voltaggio said the county had help from contractors, the state, and Camden County as well as local municipalities assisting with opening the roads. County crews have been out everyday for the past week to clear the roads of storm damage and debris. Initially working all night after the storm to clear the roads, crews are still putting in long hours, from 6:00 a.m. until sunset.

“It’s pretty much daylight hours as best we can,” Voltaggio said.

A utility worker repairs wires at Wellacrest Farms
A utility worker repairs wires at Wellacrest Farms in Mullica Hill, N.J., a week after a tornado swept through Gloucester County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Crews have come through some areas several times to clean up debris and storm damage.

“We clean it initially, get everything pushed off [and] picked up,” he said. “Then residents would be trying to clean their yards, bring [debris] out. We have to come back through again.”

Everywhere Voltaggio drove along the tornado’s path, a similar scene: uprooted trees, new utility poles installed, downed utility wires, smashed cars and houses that either suffered some form of damage or were completely flattened.

“It just breaks your heart when you see these families’ homes and stuff that have just been destroyed,” he reflects. “Some people lost everything, from every vehicle they own hit by a tree, their house crushed by a tree, to everything just gone.”

Voltaggio says that his department has been trying to help. He points to the department’s motto, “Auxilio Aliis,” Latin for “helping others.”

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past week with getting out here.”

Back on the farm, Eric Eachus is trying to get new buildings erected before the winter.

“The problem now is that most builders, they’re months out to build anything,” he said.

Eachus said at least one contractor is putting some jobs on hold. He hopes others can move things around before it starts to snow. But there are other challenges as well, like making sure building materials are available and dealing with insurance claims.

Eric Eachus stands amid the ruins caused by a tornado
Eric Eachus, vice president of Wellacrest Farms, stands amid the ruins caused by a tornado. The farm in Mullica Hill, N.J., was started by Eachus’s grandparents and grew to be the largest dairy farm in the state. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We’re having issues with insurance getting started here because now the building has depreciated value,” he said.

Though he doesn’t know how they will rebuild at the moment, Eachus said they’re working on it. But money will be one of the biggest challenges.

The farm has established a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds.

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