Weather Service: '11 deadliest for tornadoes in Va

April 28, 2011 at 3:03 p.m.
Updated April 28, 2011 at 11:29 p.m.

GLADE SPRING, Va. (AP) - A series of twisters that swept through the state this month have made 2011 the second deadliest year in Virginia for tornadoes since 1950, the National Weather Service said Friday.

Five people were killed Wednesday and Thursday as at least seven tornadoes hit the state. The number could increase as weather service crews continue to verify reported twisters.

Two others died earlier this month when tornados hit Gloucester County.

April's death toll ranks second only to the 12 killed in a single day in 1959. The weather service has only tracked tornado fatalities since 1950, although it has documentation of a string of tornadoes killing 22 and injuring 150 on May 2, 1929.

"What's happened this month, it's just staggering," said Bill Sammler, a weather service meteorologist.

Gov. Bob McDonnell went to Washington County Friday to view the damage caused by a powerful EF3 tornado that hit the Glade Spring area early Thursday. The twister packed winds of up to 165 miles per hour that toppled tractor-trailers, destroyed homes and left four dead and another 50 injured.

Tornados are ranked on a scale from E0 to E5, the highest with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour.

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. 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. McDonnell approached France and hugged him.

McDonnell said he was going to ask President Barack Obama for a federal disaster declaration. 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. 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.

"That's about 170 positions," Reeter said.

A statewide damage estimate was not available Friday.

For Shane Gilland, the loss of his parents' Bethel home means saying goodbye to the site of holiday dinners.

"To me it's overwhelming to look and see almost everything your family's worked for and it's gone," he said, while standing in the remains of a bedroom, the former walls outlined by where the hardwood flooring ended.

"But it's material. We're all alive and we're healthy and we thank God for that."

His mother, 58-year-old Gail Gilland, awoke as the storm tore away the roof and shattered windows around 1:15 a.m. Thursday. She hit the floor and clung to the heavy wooden leg of the bed frame.

Down the hallway, her husband James, 68, awoke as the storm busted out a window, threw him out of bed and then lifted the mattress and frame into the air. It swirled, then hit him and knocked him into the hallway, he said.

James - "buck naked," as he described it - kicked in the door to Gail's bedroom and sent her downstairs while he found some pants.

A piece of the roof landed in the front yard. Most of the rest disappeared.

While the Gillands lost much, they survived with some of their possessions and their sense of humor.

"Hot tub survived," James Gilland said proudly.

Across the state in Halifax County, a woman died Thursday in an EF2 tornado that carried winds of up to 135 miles per hour. A tornado of similar strength touched down in Smyth County in southwest Virginia.

Less severe tornadoes were confirmed in Carolina, Goochland, Shenandoah and Cumberland counties.

More than 7,000 people, mostly in southwest Virginia, remained without power Friday morning.

Michael Cline, director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said even people whose homes were not harmed by the storm are showing up at a Red Cross shelter at Emory and Henry University because the lack of power makes it impossible to prepare food.

This week's storms mark the third time this month that tornados have hit Virginia communities. Two tornados hit Pulaski County in early April. Weeks later, the deadly tornado in Gloucester was one of at least 10 to strike Augusta, Dinwiddie, Halifax and Rockbridge counties.

"It's been a tough month in Virginia," said Emergency Management spokeswoman Laura Southard. "This is a wake-up call for all families to be prepared for bad weather and to make a family plan."

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 them 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."


AP writer Dena Potter reported from Richmond, Va. Also contributing to this report was Associated Press writer Bob Lewis in Glade Spring.



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