Weather Service: Deadliest Year for Tornadoes in Virginia

By and | May 2, 2011

Days after a series of tornadoes blew through Virginia, officials still are trying to determine exactly how much damage was done and what to do for those who have lost everything.

Initial reports say more than 400 private homes and businesses were damaged, but that number likely will increase because some of the hardest-hit areas still haven’t finished sorting out the losses.

The death toll from Wednesday and Thursday’s tornadoes stands at five, including four in Washington County. Combined with two other deaths earlier in the month, 2011 has become the second deadliest year for tornadoes in Virginia since 1950, when the National Weather Service began tracking such data.

“The immediate search and rescue’s been done and now it’s a matter of getting people housing,” Gov. Bob McDonnell told Washington County officials during a visit Friday to Glade Spring, the epicenter of most of the county’s damage.

The weather service has confirmed seven tornadoes touched down across the state in Halifax County, where a woman was killed, and in Smyth, Caroline, Goochland, Shenandoah and Cumberland counties. That number could rise as experts examine other reported twisters.

It was déjà vu for some areas of the state that had tornadoes earlier in the month.

Two tornadoes hit southwest Virginia’s Pulaski County in early April. Weeks later, 10 twisters struck Gloucester, Augusta, Dinwiddie, Halifax and Rockbridge counties. Two people were killed in the Gloucester storm.

“What’s happened this month, it’s just staggering,” said Bill Sammler, a weather service meteorologist.

Authorities on Saturday identified those killed in the Washington County tornado as Ronnie Offield, 71; Barbara Vineta Keesee, 67; and Robert Blevins, 59, all of Glade Spring; and Joyce Mary Wentz, 60, of Abingdon.

Official property damage estimates were not expected before the weekend.

McDonnell said Saturday that he has asked President Barack Obama for a federal disaster declaration. He said he has requested individual assistance and Small Business Administration disaster loans for Washington and Halifax counties.

McDonnell has already declared a state of emergency, allowing state resources to be used in the recovery effort.

Washington County Administrator Mark Reeter said preliminary assessments show several hundred houses destroyed in the county, where a powerful tornado packing winds of up to 165 mph toppled tractor-trailers, destroyed homes and injured at least 50 people.

Businesses also suffered severe losses, including a hose-and-belt manufacturing plant that Reeter says is a total loss. The county is working to find another location for the facility and its 170 jobs.

“Hopefully, we can get our people back on their feet again,” county Board of Supervisors member Dulcie Mumpower told McDonnell as he hugged her.

McDonnell met with Kara and Michael Johnson in Glade Spring on top of the rubble pile that had been the trailer they shared with their three children and two pets. Michael Johnson, 39, said that when the storm hit he put his 31-year-old wife and the children in the bathtub and huddled over the top of them.

The tornado tossed a neighbor’s car into the rear of their trailer.

“I literally had to hold the wall and ceiling up so everyone could crawl out,” Michael Johnson said. “There were seven living creatures in that trailer, and all seven of us crawled out alive — the cat, the dog, all of us.”

Less than a football field away, 23-year-old Seth France stood silently looking at the rubble that had been his grandmother’s home. McDonnell approached France and hugged him. France’s grandmother, Barbara Keesee, was killed when she was flung from the trailer, and two of the other five people living there suffered broken necks.

In one neighborhood of tidy brick homes, McDonnell marveled at the close call Patty Fields and her young daughters endured.

Fields said she’d heard warnings that a twister was approaching and was rushing the children toward the basement. She thought her all-brick home would protect them, but saw it disintegrate around her in seconds.

“By the time we got to the (basement) door, the roof was gone, the garage was gone,” she said.

As McDonnell introduced himself to Fields’ children, she told daughter Sarah, 3, to “tell the governor who protected you during the storm.”

Sarah thought for a moment, looked at McDonnell and said, “God.”

James Hall Sr., 63, was asleep in his century-old white farmhouse just off Interstate 81 in Glade Spring when the storm tore through the area, blowing out his window and stripping the top of his house away.

Hall says he suffered cuts and bruises, but was otherwise unhurt so he went out looking for neighbors.

He found 22-year-old Vanessa Galvin, who lived in a small trailer court several hundred yards behind his house. Galvin had just managed to wriggle free from beneath the roof of another trailer where she’d been trapped with her boyfriend, Adam Barton, 21, and his mother Robin Frye, 49. Hall helped pull Barton and Frye free.

Frye said she thought they were going to die.

“We was praying to the Lord. We was either going to heaven or we was walking out alive,” Frye said.

Officials visiting the scene with McDonnell said an elderly woman who lived in one of trailers was one of the people killed in the storm. Hall said authorities found her body several hours after he rescued Frye and Barton, but added that he didn’t even know she lived in the trailers.

On Friday, the family came back and met with McDonnell. Barton said they were hoping to retrieve possessions. The family has temporarily moved to Bristol, he said.

“It was a good place to live,” Frye said. “We’re not living in a mobile home ever again.”

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters Windstorm Washington Virginia France

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