By Martin Weil and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Three tornadoes ripped across southeastern Virginia yesterday 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, where the emergency room at one hospital tended to about 60 people with fractures, cuts and bruises.
"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.
"There was a weird sound that I never heard before," said Diane MacKenzie, who also lives in one of the areas 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 came 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.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) declared a state of emergency last night, freeing up state resources to assist the areas hit hardest.
As of late yesterday, no storm-related fatalities had been reported.
Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said crews planned to search the rubble through the night.
"It is an evolving situation," he said. "They are going door-to-door."
Initial reports indicated the possibility of at least two tornadoes touching down in Suffolk.
There were also strong indications that a single powerful storm may 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 may have touched down in Mathews County, farther to the northeast.
Dana Woodson, a Suffolk city official, said early today that 25 homes in one of the hardest hit areas had been declared uninhabitable.
The city of Suffolk, which encompasses 430 square miles, has a population of 82,000. 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, 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.
More than 100 people went to a shelter set up by the Red Cross at a high school, although not all said they expected to spend the night.
Spieldenner said the number of injured had been estimated at 200 but details were not available.
Sixty people were treated 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."
Kaine plans to visit Colonial Heights and Suffolk today.
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."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.