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 wasn’t 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.
“I’m not lucky, I’m blessed,” said Williams, who had a 2-inch gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. “I’m fine. I’m here. I’m 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.
“It’s 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 that’s 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.
“It’s 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 Suffolk’s 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 Parker’s businesses and his pre-Civil War-era home were damaged.
The porch was blown off his Arthur’s 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 that’s 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 don’t even think a leaf blew off at her house. That’s how tornadoes are,” he said.
'Could have been much worse'
At King’s 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. “It’s 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.