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Eight Tornadoes Ravage Eastern Virginia

05/07/2008

When tornadoes swept across the state of Virginia on Monday, April 28, local Amateur Radio operators responded to the call for assistance. According to Ken Murphy, KI4GEM, Assistant Emergency Coordinator for Portsmouth, an EF3 tornado touched down in Suffolk, Virginia around 4 PM local time, plowing its way east into Norfolk, damaging scores of homes, stores and cars and downing dozens of trees and power lines; Suffolk is about 20 miles from Norfolk, Virginia. Soon after the tornadoes touched down, Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine declared a State of Emergency and directed state agencies to take all necessary actions to aid in the response to widespread damage from the severe weather. About 140 homes were destroyed, damaged or deemed uninhabitable.

The National Weather Service (NWS) confirmed eight tornadoes in Virginia: City of Suffolk (strong EF3), City of Colonial Heights (EF1), Brunswick County (EF1), Gloucester County (EF0), Mathews County (EF0), Halifax County (EF1), Surry County (EF1) and Isle of Wight County (EF1).

"The tornado produced severe damage to many structures, downed large trees, and destroyed power lines. Approximately 200 were injures reported and several homes and businesses were destroyed. There were no fatalities," Murphy said. Upon spotting the tornado, Murphy called placed a call on the Portsmouth repeater, asking for someone to notify the National Weather Service and the local EMS. A SKYWARN net was activated on another repeater; Portsmouth Emergency Coordinator Dave Livingston, K5SFM, and Bill Farmer, KI4GWC, served as Net control.

"This was an unusual activation in that an ARES AEC from one locality -- Portsmouth -- would not normally be on the scene of a tornado touching down in another locality -- Suffolk," said ARRL Virginia Section Manager Carl Clements, W4CAC. "Murphy requested that NWS be notified of the tornado and that the fire department and emergency teams be notified so they could respond. The Deputy Fire Chief of the Driver Volunteer Fire Department (who was the on-scene commander at the time) was concerned about the number of onlookers entering the disaster area. There were many power lines down and trees in the roadway and on buildings, as well as damaged natural gas mains. Some buildings were gone leaving a massive debris field."

The Driver VFD Chief requested that ARES activate in order to assist the local teams; 10 members of the Portsmouth ARES group responded. "The Chief had Murphy assign hams to the roadblocks at the major intersections to assist the police on the scene with traffic and crowd control. We also kept the Chief informed of the locations of other reported funnel clouds. At one point, the Fire Chief on the scene was advised that one of the team members was tracking the rapidly moving weather still in the area with the help of APRS," Clements said.

A spokesperson for the City of Suffolk said the area around Sentara Obici Hospital in Driver (a community within Suffolk) were hardest hit. The hospital was damaged but still able to treat patients. A spokesperson for the hospital said about 60 injured people were being treated there, and he expected most to be released. "We have lots of cuts and bruises and arm and leg injuries," he said.

Clements said that no further assistance from ARES has been requested. "All local police, fire, and EMS communications are intact and functioning. As in any disaster, the Emergency Management Officials are asking that unless you have a specific assignment from an on-scene agency (Red Cross, Salvation Army, official search and rescue teams and the like), please do not just show up at the stricken areas to offer assistance."

State and local officials were still far from a final estimate of the damages from the Suffolk twister -- the worst of eight the National Weather Service says hit Virginia. Losses from the lesser storms are already at least $3.5 million, said Bob Spieldenner of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. In Suffolk, the destruction could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Gov Kaine said he was not yet certain that the damage qualifies for a presidential disaster declaration, a designation that qualifies a region for low-interest federal loans to help homeowners rebuild. "We've got to survey the needs and see what can be done."



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