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Virginia Tornadoes Destroy 145 Homes, Injure 200 People

Kaine Calls Va. Tornado Aftermath 'Serious Devastation'

Storms Destroy 145 Homes, Injure 200 People


The Washington Post, April 29, 2008


SUFFOLK, Va., April 29 -- Virginia officials are inspecting the damage from three tornadoes that ripped across southeastern Virginia on Monday afternoon, overturning autos, demolishing houses and injuring as many as 200 people.


The National Weather Service said the most powerful of the storms touched down in Suffolk, west of Virginia Beach, where the emergency room at one hospital tended to about 60 people with fractures, cuts and bruises. City officials said Tuesday there were no reports of fatalities after search teams swept the area of damage three times.


"It was like a war zone," said Jennifer Haines, a resident of one of the hardest-hit parts of Suffolk, where tornado winds were believed to more than 100 mph.


Other tornadoes were reported earlier in the afternoon in Brunswick County, about 60 miles west of Suffolk, and in Colonial Heights, south of Richmond.


Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is expected to tour Suffolk and Colonial Heights Tuesday afternoon. He declared a state of emergency Monday night, freeing up state resources to assist the hard-hit areas.


Kaine said Tuesday morning that about 145 homes were "damaged very severely" in Suffolk but that most of the 200 people who were injured have been released from hospitals. "It was very, very serious devastation," Kaine said on WTOP radio. "It is kind of amazing there weren't more significant injuries. You are talking about 145 homes; that is probably five to six hundred people directly affected by this tornado."


Kaine said Virginia is deploying trucks, supplies and other equipment to the area to help with the recovery. Kaine said he probably will also ask President Bush to declare the area a federal disaster area.

The Dominion Virginia Power's Web site reported shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday that power was out to more than 1,300 customers in the Richmond area and 1,300 in southeastern Virginia. By 9 a.m., the total number of customers without power in the Richmond area and in southeastern Virginia was about 2,000.


At 8 a.m. Tuesday, many streets in and around Suffolk, a city of 82,000, remained closed. Cars were stuck along Route 10, one of the city's major thoroughfares. Other vehicles were abandoned on the side of the road, alongside downed trees.


Residents were anxiously awaiting word about when they could get back in their homes but were told it might be another day. Emergency workers were touring the damaged areas, this time with dogs, looking for victims as well as assessing damage to gas and electric lines.


As of 9 a.m., 111 people had registered at a shelter set up by the city at King's Fork High School. Fifty-one people spent Monday night. Evacuees spent Tuesday morning in the cafeteria, eating doughnuts and fruit for breakfast and watching CNN.


Tuesday, after the rain stopped, the weather was cool and sunny. One yellow sign near the shelter said: "We Have a Crane! Storm Damage. Tree Removal."


In a news briefing televised on CNN, Suffolk Fire Chief Mark R. Outlaw said the city was seeking to control gas leaks in stricken areas. Search crews, he said, brought good news: "They're not finding any other injuries and, most importantly, no fatalities." He added: "Just torn-up lumber and torn-up houses. that's what we're hoping for."


Residents of some of the hardest-hit areas reported frightening moments as the storms roared through.


"There was a weird sound that I never heard before," said Diane MacKenzie, who lives in one of the areas near Suffolk where damage appeared most severe. "That scared me."


The storm began with hail, followed by rain "so heavy you couldn't see through it," she said. Then, in an instant, she saw "debris everywhere."


Dozens of homes in the neighborhood, near the Nansemond River, had been reduced to "just sticks," MacKenzie said.


Beams and boards littered neighborhoods, lying in vast clumps of pink insulation. Walls and roofs were peeled from many houses. Witnesses saw cars on their roofs and tree trunks that had been bent.

The storm swept in with astonishing speed, said John Rose of the Chuckatuck Volunteer Fire Department. Damage was extensive, he said.


The foundation of a house, for example, remained where it had been dug, he said, but the house itself was "sort of down the way" in "a pile of rubble." In the living room of another house, a lawn mower had been blown in through a porch window, he said.


In one place, a sofa had come to rest in the middle of a street. A woman was sitting on it, holding an umbrella, said a man who lived near the damage zone.


Initial reports indicated the possibility of at least two tornadoes touching down in Suffolk.


There were also strong indications that a single powerful storm might have touched down several times as it roared along a route of 15 miles or more from Suffolk toward Norfolk and Hampton Roads. The Weather Service received several reports of a funnel cloud crossing Hampton Roads shortly after tornadoes touched down about 4:30 p.m. in Suffolk.


It appeared that a tornado might have touched down in Mathews County, farther to the northeast.

Dana Woodson, a Suffolk city official, said early Tuesday that 25 homes in one of the hardest-hit areas had been declared uninhabitable.


The city of Suffolk encompasses 430 square miles. Some of the worst damage occurred in the Driver and Obici neighborhoods. In Driver, eight buildings were damaged and three were flattened, Woodson said.


Emergency personnel brought 120 people to a hospital Monday, including six in critical condition and six others in serious condition. Dozens more drove themselves or walked to the hospital, Woodson said. "There were a lot of buildings and trees down and power lines damaged," she said.


Sixty people were treated Monday at Sentara Obici Hospital in Suffolk, said Dale Gauding, a spokesman for Sentara Health Care, which operates the hospital.


The hospital was close to the route taken by the tornado across Suffolk, Gauding said. Staff members told him they saw the funnel cloud. An alarm was sounded, warning those in the building to seek cover.


Damage to the hospital was minor, with a couple of windows cracked in the emergency department, Gauding said.


Mike Rusnak, a meteorologist at the Weather Service's forecast office in Wakefield, Va., said that in addition to the Suffolk tornado, there were tornadoes confirmed in Brunswick County, on Virginia's southern border, and in Colonial Heights area, near Richmond and Petersburg.


In Brunswick County, where the storm struck about 1 p.m., Weather Service specialists rated it as EF1, which can bring winds of more than 100 mph.


Homes three miles southeast of Lawrenceville in Brunswick were damaged along a 300-yard track.

Woodson, the Suffolk spokeswoman, said winds there were believed greater than EF1.


Jamie Smith, an administrative assistant at the Nansemond River Golf Club in the hard-hit section of Suffolk, said the area underwent "a great degree of devastation." The damage, he said, included roofs and siding pulled from houses; at least several homes were destroyed.


A woman who declined to give her name said: "It just looked like a ball of wind and trash and all kinds of stuff coming at you. A lot of people's houses are down. It was devastating."


Hours after the big tornado came through, witnesses continued to provide descriptions.


Jennifer Haines said it "sounded like someone was shuffling a huge deck of cards." John Byrd, who lives in the Hillpoint Farms subdivision of Suffolk, gave an assessment that came from personal experience. Byrd, who works as a railroad conductor, said it "sounded like a freight train."



Va. residents inspect twister damage

Buildings wrecked, cars flipped; three tornadoes hurt more than 200


The Associated Press, April. 29, 2008


SUFFOLK, Va. - Weary residents and business owners, some awakening in emergency shelters, braced themselves to see what was left of their homes and livelihoods Tuesday after three tornadoes smashed houses, piled cars on each other and injured more than 200 people.


One twister in this city outside Norfolk cut a zigzagging path 25 miles long through residential areas, obliterating some homes in sprays of splintered lumber while leaving others just a few feet away untouched.


Search teams with dogs found no sign of deaths or any additional injured victims, Suffolk City Fire Chief Mark Outlaw said.


The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed, Outlaw said.


Most home and business owners were blocked from damaged areas until officials could assess the damage. It wasnt clear when they could return.


Brenda Williams, 43, returned Tuesday to the shopping center where she was buried beneath a collapsed ceiling in a manicure shop during the storm. She was pulled to safety by a stranger, she said.


Im not lucky, Im blessed, said Williams, who had a 2-inch gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. Im fine. Im here. Im in the land of the living.


She retrieved possessions from her car, which was flipped on its roof and destroyed in the parking lot.


Several roads were closed Tuesday morning, and traffic was backed up leading into downtown Suffolk, a city of approximately 80,000 outside Norfolk.


Only 6 in critical condition


Of the 200 injured, only six were listed in critical condition and six were listed as serious. Officials listed 125 Suffolk homes and 15 buildings as uninhabitable.


Gov. Timothy Kaine declared a state of emergency, which frees up resources for those areas hit hardest. Kaine planned to visit some of the most damaged areas on Tuesday.


Its kind of amazing there were not more significant injuries, Kaine said in an interview with WTOP Radio in Washington. He said he would ask President Bush for a disaster declaration.


Jennifer Haines and her two young girls hid in a cubbyhole in her house in Suffolk as the tornado hit about three blocks away.


It sounded like someone shuffling a giant deck of cards or a herd of wild animals coming through. You could feel the house shaking and hear the wind coming in through the cracks in the windows, Haines said.


It was so scary I felt like I was having a heart attack.


Keith Godwin and his wife and two kids took shelter in their bathroom after he looked out a window and saw one of the funnel clouds.


The Godwins home is fine except for some debris, as are the rest of those on their side of the street. But houses across the street were badly damaged, including two completely wiped off their foundations and one that was tossed on top of another home.


All thats left is a concrete slab, Godwin said.


Insulation, wiring and twisted metal hung from the front of a mall stripped bare of its facing. At another store, the sheet metal roofing was rolled up like a sardine can lid. Some of the cars and SUVs in the parking lot were on top of others.


Its just a bunch of broken power poles, telephone lines and sad faces, said Richard Allbright, who works for a tree removal service in Driver and had been out for hours trying to clear the roads.


The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes struck Suffolk, Brunswick County, about 60 miles west, and Colonial Heights, about 60 miles northwest. Meteorologist Bryan Jackson described Suffolks as a major tornado.


The Brunswick County tornado was estimated at 86 mph to 110 mph, and cut a 300-yard path, Jackson said. It struck first, at about 1 p.m., said Mike Rusnak, a weather service meteorologist in Wakefield.

The second struck Colonial Heights around 3:40 p.m., he said.


The tornado believed to have caused damage over a 25-mile path from Suffolk to Norfolk touched down repeatedly between 4:30 and 5 p.m., Rusnak said.


At least 200 were injured in Suffolk and 18 others were injured in Colonial Heights, south of Richmond, said Bob Spieldenner of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.


Sentara hospital spokesman Dale Gauding said about 70 people were treated there, lots of cuts and bruises and arm and leg injuries. Three were admitted in fair condition.


Property damage also was reported in Brunswick County, one of several places where the weather service had issued a tornado warning. State Police Sgt. Michelle Cotten said a twister destroyed two homes. Trees and power lines were down, and some flooding was reported.


In Driver, Va., several of Gregory Parkers businesses and his pre-Civil War-era home were damaged.


The porch was blown off his Arthurs General Store. At another store he owns, the tin roof was rolled up like a sardine can. The facade of his home collapsed and the windows were blown out. Inside, furniture was tossed about.


I hate to say it sounded like a train, but thats the truth, Parker said.


His wife, Ellise, rode out the storm in the first-floor bathroom of another antique store. The building lost its second story.

Parker spent the night with his sister, who lives nearby.

I dont even think a leaf blew off at her house. Thats how tornadoes are, he said.


'Could have been much worse'


At Kings Fork High School, about 65 people took shelter for the night. Many of them watched coverage of the storms on television as volunteers set up cots in the gymnasium.


Chris Jones, a former Suffolk mayor, said area residents stopped by the high school throughout the night to donate bottled water, toothpaste, deodorant and other needed items.


It could have been much worse, Jones said. Its been amazing the people who have come out to help tonight.


About 5,500 Dominion Virginia Power customers remained without service Monday night, mostly in the Northern Neck.


Laura Southard, a state emergency management spokeswoman, said the damage assessment will be done Tuesday.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.