Recovery from disaster: Wellacrest Farms one year after tornado strike
MULLICA HILL — It was a relatively peaceful day in South Jersey on Sept. 1, 2021. As Wally Eachus came out on a porch with soup he had just made, family members noticed that the clouds were turning dark.
It was shortly after 6 p.m.
Then there was the sound like a locomotive was coming down the tracks and within a minute or so, the air was silent.
Destruction and devastation replaced the tranquility when a tornado touched the ground from Harrisonville to Mullica Hill to Deptford. It was spawned from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
In its path was the Eachus family’s Wellacrest Farms, the largest dairy farm in New Jersey.
In less than a minute, the farm was devastated. Barns were destroyed, bins leveled, vehicles overturned.
About 280 cows were pinned by debris. Six excavators were used to lift pieces of barn to rescue the animals. It took hours upon hours. In the end, all but about 45 cows survived the tornado.
Thankfully, no people were injured or killed because of the storm. The fact that the tornado hit in the early evening likely helped minimize the risk of injury and death as compared to a storm that might have hit during the night when most people would have been asleep.
“We worked through the night until early the next morning to try to save the animals,” said Marianne Eachus, one of the owners of Wellacrest Farms. “We tried to continue to milk the dairy cows well into the early morning hours of the next day. It was critical to get the well water running again, and at about 5:30 a.m., it finally worked. The cows were able to drink water.”
“As the sun was coming up the next morning, we saw the devastation,” Eachus continued. “We embraced and cried. And then the thoughts came – What do we do? Where do we start?”
Shortly thereafter, the Eachus family got some answers.
“There were people coming down our driveway,” she said. “People wanting to help us. I don’t know what we would have done if no one had come down our driveway that morning.”
The initial land that became Wellacrest Farms was purchased by Eachus family back in 1943. The name came from the names of V. Willard Eachus and from Ella Eachus, the parents of Wally Eachus, as well as the fact that the farm was on a crest of land, according to Wally’s wife, Marianne Eachus.
In addition, the Eachus family has a 600-acre hay farm near Watertown, N.Y. Much of the hay is sold to people with horses in the region.
During the past year or so, people donated their time and skills to help restore and enhance Wellacrest Farms. Farmers and other businesses donated food and supplies. People of all types donated money.
Three Amish men arrived shortly after the disaster. They made arrangements for assistance to help the Eachus family.
A group of Amish men came from the Lancaster area, Monday through Friday for 8 weeks. From about 6:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. They helped rebuild the barns and other structures on the property.
“At about 9:30 a.m. each morning, they took their hats off and had quiet social time,” Marianne said. “They were of tremendous help to our family.”
As for insurance, she noted that the family got a crash course in “depreciated value” versus “cash value.” She added fighting for insurance proceeds has been difficult.
While there has been little help provided by the federal government specifically related to the tornado, Marianne said several local governmental entities have provided help with cash, supplies and services.
“Secretary [Douglas] Fisher did stop by a few times,” she said referring to the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture. “He asked what he could do to help and on one of those days, our Internet wasn’t working. I’m not sure exactly who did what to make it happen, but Comcast was out here by the end of that day and we regained Internet service.”
She also said that after the tornado hit, a GoFundMe campaign was started; about $120,000 was raised. “We used these funds to rebuild our heifer barn,” she said.
“We are deeply appreciative of all of the help we did receive from other farmers, suppliers, the Amish from the Lancaster area, and just individuals who saw the devastation and wanted to help,” Marianne added. “Some gave so much. Others, like one man in Florida who gave $20, may not have given huge amounts, but it may have been a lot to them. There were so many people who helped us. I hand-wrote thank you notes to each one.”
One year later, things are getting better, she said.
“We’re coming along. Our cows are resilient.”
Marianne said they harvested a good wheat crop and in July, 100 new calves were born on the farm.
“We’re still picking up trash. And we’re still dealing with the financial difficulties caused by the tornado. But through it all, we have great employees.”
The aftermath from the tornado has been “overwhelming and emotional,” Marianne said, “but made me believe in humanity. There are so many good people out there who helped us. We are grateful.”