By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
SUFFOLK, Va. April 29 -- Jennifer and Richard Schmack maneuvered their cars around an obstacle course of fallen trees, downed power lines and piles of discarded furniture.
They came to see what was left of their house.
Inside, wet insulation hung from the ceiling. Toys were tossed around the floor, which was covered with pine tree branches and dirt. Part of the roof was gone, exposing the first sunny blue sky in 24 hours.
"I still can't grasp it," Jennifer Schmack, 29, said as she looked around. "The house obviously needs to be torn down."
The Schmacks were among the first residents allowed back into their homes after six tornadoes swept through southeastern Virginia on Monday, injuring more than 200 people and destroying about 145 houses. Emergency officials put early cost estimates at more than $21 million but expected the total to climb. Suffolk and Colonial Heights were hit hardest.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who declared a state of emergency in the devastated areas, visited with evacuees Tuesday before touring damaged areas along with local officials. A somber Kaine strolled about a half-mile, talking to residents about their experiences. Many residents were allowed into their homes only to retrieve an item or two, if they could find anything.
"There was definitely a miraculous quality to this," Kaine said.
Most of the injured had been treated for minor cuts and scrapes. At least a dozen people remained hospitalized, six in critical condition. No deaths were reported.
The Schmacks, along with a group of friends, spent hours at their one-story home in Sadler Heights as they sorted through belongings, some of which were found several streets away. They managed to salvage Jennifer's wedding dress, Richard's hockey memorabilia and some of their children's stuffed animals. Two hamsters and one of two fish survived. Some photo albums were recovered, but others were a soppy mess.
"My life is strewn across the yard for everyone to see," Jennifer Schmack said.
A trio of tornadoes hopscotched across Virginia along a 25-mile path Monday.
The first tornado touched down about 1 p.m. in Brunswick County. The second struck Colonial Heights about 3:40 p.m. The third tornado, which hit Suffolk, touched down 10 times from 4:30 to 5 p.m., with most damage in the Hillpoint Farms and Burnett Mills areas. The tornadoes struck at a time when many people were not home, officials said.
"The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed," Suffolk Fire Chief Mark Outlaw said.
Homes were lifted off their foundations and pushed into streets. Cars were overturned and piled atop one another. Huge trees were snapped into pieces. A shopping mall was stripped to bare metal.
Suffolk, a fast-growing area of 82,000 residents on the edge of Hampton Roads, has been slowly changing from a peanut haven to a city with several high-paying, high-tech companies. The devastation was confined to a few neighborhoods, but the entire city was paralyzed. Many major thoroughfares remained closed. Signs cropped up overnight offering storm cleanup services. Trucks drove through the city as workers began cutting down branches and repairing electric lines.
One by one, street by street, residents began returning to their homes to see what was left. Some were greeted by the word "Clear" on the front of their house, but others saw red signs that meant the house was probably condemned.
Some residents were left waiting anxiously Tuesday night in shelters, hotels or the homes of relatives and friends without knowing whether their houses, belongings or pets were safe.
Ruth Silberholz, 69, dressed in the same blue and gray sweat clothes she had worn the day before, sat in the city's makeshift shelter for several hours Tuesday, plotting how to get back into her house. Her son tried to sneak into their neighborhood on foot to take a quick peak, but emergency officials kept many people away because of concerns about downed power lines and natural gas leaks.
"We need someone to make the call and let us back in," Silberholz said as she sipped another cup of coffee. "I want to get in there and check on everything . . . make sure everything is okay."
Police had escorted Silberholz and her husband, Joe, out of their Hillpoint Farms neighborhood Monday afternoon after the couple rode out the storm in a bedroom closet. The Silberholzes were both injured by flying glass. The couple said their next-door neighbor and her 3-year-old grandchild had been blown out of a sunroom, landing 30 feet away.
The Silberholzes were just emerging from the closet to assess the damage when officers knocked on the door. The couple had managed to see only cracked walls, blown-out windows and fallen paintings before they left. They did not have time to examine their century-old antiques.
"You just want to go back there," Ruth Silberholz said. "It all happened so quickly. We didn't have the time to see what was broken."
The Silberholzes were immediately drawn to the house on the lake when they bought it six years ago after moving from Philadelphia to be closer to their son and his family. Now, they worry that rabbits, birds and squirrels that live near the water could further damage the house.
City officials said more than 145 houses were destroyed, with many more damaged.
Teams of emergency workers spent the day combing through damaged areas with search dogs looking for trapped victims and assessing damage.
"It's a slow, arduous process," said Del. S. Chris Jones (R), a former Suffolk mayor who spent the day volunteering at the shelter.
More than 100 people gathered at the shelter set up at King's Fork High School, including 51 who slept there Monday night. Evacuees spent the day eating donated food, watching CNN, playing games and wondering what awaited them at their homes. Insurance adjusters began setting up shop at the shelter to start the task of accepting claims.
Kenneth Gucwa, 30, returned to his newly built house to find the roof blown off and some of the walls gone. His mother had bought the house last year in preparation for her move from Vermont later this year. Her move has been delayed, but Gucwa said they plan to rebuild.
Gucwa and two friends from Williamsburg picked through his belongings Tuesday, but many items were ruined after hours of exposure to the pounding rain.
Still, he began transporting his tools and appliances out of the house, even those that might no longer work.
"There are scavengers out there," he said. "I can only imagine what they want."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.