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  •   Tidewater in Turmoil After Bonnie's Surprise

    By Dan Eggen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, August 29, 1998; Page B01

    VIRGINIA BEACH, Aug. 28—Shellshocked residents of Virginia's Tidewater region began the arduous task of cleaning up today after an overnight ambush by Hurricane Bonnie, which leveled thousands of trees, damaged hundreds of homes and businesses and cast most of the region into darkness before finally retreating out to sea.

    The surprise drubbing produced winds that gusted up to 100 mph at Cape Henry. They showered the streets of Virginia Beach's ocean strip with glass and debris, gouged walls from hotels and peeled the roofs off two sprawling apartment complexes in Norfolk.

    At least 40 homes and apartments were deemed unfit for habitation, and about 250,000 customers remained without electricity late today.

    About 30 miles to the south across the North Carolina line, a 12-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on her house, crushing her. No other serious injuries in the region were reported.

    Bonnie struck just hours after cities from Virginia Beach to Newport News had let down their guard, relying on predictions of only a gentle slap from what appeared to be a weakening tropical storm. But Bonnie gained power instead as it moved into warm ocean waters, and it was rewarded with renewed hurricane status after 11 p.m.

    The four-hour storm drove the raging ocean over Virginia Beach's boardwalk area, pelting high-rise hotels with sand and seashells, and sending debris several blocks inland. Frightened tourists huddled in their rooms or cowered in stairwells to escape the onslaught.

    "It was just this great, endless howl until 3 o'clock," said Justin Markowitz, of Luray, Va., who had traveled with his wife and two children to Virginia Beach on Thursday evening based on optimistic weather reports, renting an eighth-floor ocean-view room at the Ramada Inn.

    "It blew the whole air conditioner into the room," he said. "We were just waiting for the whole room to explode."

    A half-mile up Atlantic Avenue, Bhavesh Patel nervously hunkered down in his mini-mart as the wind roared outside.

    "There was stuff flying everywhere," he said. "It was so incredibly dangerous. I can't believe nobody got killed."

    Outside the commercial strip, old-growth trees were twisted and tossed, while shingles and siding were ripped away.

    Among the hardest-hit areas were Sandbridge, a precarious waterfront settlement where more than a dozen homes were severely damaged and a newly built protective beach was partially washed away, and Ocean View, a Norfolk neighborhood along the mouth of the Chesapeake, where the roofs were ripped from two apartment buildings.

    Virginia Beach officials estimated damage at $13.3 million. In Norfolk, an early estimate was $2 million.

    Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) toured Virginia Beach and flew over the Norfolk area this afternoon, along with federal emergency officials, as he considered asking for federal help.

    "We're here to see what the damage is and what we can do to help," Gilmore said.

    Bonnie's surprise lashing prompted complaints from some home and business owners, who said local officials were too quick to believe reports that the storm would cause little damage.

    Virginia Beach, Norfolk and other cities dismantled their emergency operations Thursday evening and lifted recommendations that people evacuate low-lying areas.

    "If they would have stayed ready for this to be a little more severe, a lot of people would have been more prepared," said South Beach Gifts owner Robert Whitfield. "They don't want people to panic, but I think they could have been a little more serious about this storm."

    Gilmore and local officials, however, insisted that they did the best they could with the information at hand. Most said that they relied heavily on the decision by the National Hurricane Center to lift the hurricane warning for the area when Bonnie was downgraded to a tropical storm at midday.

    "This has been one of the most frustrating storms in memory," said Mark Marchbank, emergency coordinator for Virginia Beach. "One report would be positive, the next would be negative. It was hard to know what to think. . . . I don't have any problem with our emergency response. We stepped back a little, but we were still prepared."

    Norfolk spokesman Charles Hartig agreed. "This just underlines how unpredictable hurricanes are," he said. "With all our technology and ability, we still can't match wits with Mother Nature. A lot of fingers are being pointed, but I don't think that's fair."

    In the aftermath today, the air in Virginia Beach was filled with the sounds of chain saws and other tools of the cleanup. Most businesses remained closed because of a lack of power; those that opened were swamped with customers and long lines. In residential neighborhoods, many roads were covered with a layer of branches and leaves, flanked by leaning power poles, bent traffic signs and fallen trees.

    Virginia Power said about 320,000 customers were without power before dawn, and 247,500 were still without it at midday.

    "It was a bigger wallop than we thought," said Virginia Power spokesman Tom Kazas.

    Virginia Department of Emergency Services officials said the lack of power is also causing problems with Virginia Beach's water and sewer processing plants, and residents were being asked to conserve water.

    In Ocean City, Md., by contrast, the predictions that the storm would pass offshore relatively harmlessly turned out to be true.

    The storm's fringe hit about noon but caused no flooding or power outages. Heavy rains ended in the morning, followed by winds of 30 to 50 mph.

    The gusts and cloudy skies didn't scare away the crowds. Thousands strolled the boardwalk, undeterred by occasional assaults from sand whipping off the beach. The amusement parks were closed most of the day, but arcades did brisk business.

    Staff writers Eric L. Wee in Washington and Lyndsey Layton in Ocean City contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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