- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SUFFOLK, Va. — Payton Williams yesterday wore one white sneaker and one black bedroom slipper as he stood on the street that leads to where his house used to be.

With a plastic soup spoon given to him by a relief worker, the 53-year-old gestured at a golf course that backs up to his neighborhood. The remains of his house were scattered across the fairway by one of six tornadoes that struck southeastern Virginia on Monday.

But the sight didn’t upset him.

“I’m happy,” he said. “You’re not looking at a black body bag.”

Hundreds of residents had similar experiences yesterday as they surveyed their damaged or destroyed houses.

Officials said the most severe of the twisters hit Suffolk and recorded winds of up to 160 miles per hour over a 10-mile path, injuring 200 people and severely damaging 145 houses.

But after extensive searches yesterday, officials said they were aware of no deaths from the storm.

“It’s nothing short of miraculous,” said Gov. Tim Kaine, who declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas and toured the damage yesterday afternoon.

Officials said six people were critically injured and six others were in serious condition, but the vast majority suffered cuts and bruises. Mr. Kaine said that the number of people hurt or killed could have been much higher, but that the tornado touched down between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Monday — when many people were still at work or on their way home.

Some roads remained blocked late yesterday, and it was not clear when residents and business owners would be allowed to return to damaged neighborhoods. Emergency workers with search dogs combed through rubble while inspectors assessed the damage.

“We are working as hard as we can and will get these people in their respective areas as soon as possible,” said Fire Chief Mark Outlaw.

Beth Catania, 61, was among those waiting to survey the damage at her house yesterday.

“My house fell on top of me, and I’m alive,” she said. “I have no broken bones, no internal injuries. It’s a miracle. It’s a living miracle, and I’m it.”

The resident of the Hillpoint community was baking whole wheat bread when her husband called to warn her about the tornado.

“So I turned on the TV, and sure enough they were pretty excited tracking it,” she said.

She said it seemed to be getting near her house, so she went upstairs, got a couple pillows, a quilt and her purse — which she said ended up “out on the ground somewhere.”

Then she said she heard a “trainlike noise.”

“So I got in the closet and put the quilt over my head,” she said. “And just about that time the house went, whoosh, from the pressure change. And then the splintering and breaking began.”

Damage covered more than 25 miles, toppling utility poles, piling cars on top of one another and obliterating some homes in sprays of splintered lumber while leaving others just a few feet away untouched. Pink household insulation could be seen caught in the grill of a Jeep. A fish tank, with fish still swimming in its cloudy water, ended up in a driveway. A 5-foot-by-7-foot board of plywood was jammed 10 feet high into a tree.

The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes also hit Brunswick County, about 60 miles west, and Colonial Heights, about 60 miles northwest. Three other twisters hit in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, and along the line separating Gloucester and Mathews counties, all in southeastern Virginia. The other tornadoes caused far less damage than the twister that ravaged Suffolk.

The National Weather Service says the region is prone to severe weather because it is at the focal point of several geographical and meteorological features that contribute to severe storms.

“We’re next to the ocean, right next to the mountains,” said Chris Strong at the Weather Service in Sterling. “We get the cold air from Canada and the warm, moist air from the Gulf Stream.”

Mr. Strong said Virginia averages about 20 to 40 tornadoes a year and Maryland averages about 15 to 20, although most don’t do much damage.

Keith Lynch at the Weather Service in Wakefield said large storms and tornadoes are most likely to hit between late March and May. He said tornadoes typically form east of Interstate 95 and south of the James River, which bisects the state latitudinally.

Meteorologists say Virginia has had severe tornado outbreaks in the past, but the ones that struck Monday seemed worse because they hit populated areas.

The storms are being compared to the twisters in August 1993, when there were a record 18 tornadoes in a four-hour period. Four people were killed and 259 injured.

The deadliest outbreak was in May 1929, when 22 people were killed and more than 150 injured in one day in western Virginia.

Maryland’s strongest tornado struck La Plata in April 2002 and killed three persons and injured nearly 100 others. The twister was labeled an F5, the strongest designation with winds of between 261 and 318 mph.

There have also been two F4 storms in Maryland — one in 1998 in Frostburg with no fatalities and one in 1926 in La Plata that killed 14 children at a school.

David C. Lipscomb contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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