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Hundreds of Va homes damaged

Volunteers respond to help residents after two tornadoes devastate communities

BY JOHN PAPE | PULASKI, VA | April 9, 2011

Much of Pulaski, Va., remained under a nighttime curfew over the weekend after a pair of tornadoes tore through the community Friday, damaging more than 400 homes.

Eight people were sent to area hospitals with non-life threatening injuries after the twin tornadoes hit the western Virginia city of 10,000 Friday evening.

Local officials placed the initial damage estimate to residences in Pulaski and nearby Draper at more than $8 million.

In addition, some 50 other structures were also damaged. Emergency management officials estimated the damage to non-residential structures at $500,000.

The funnels were spawned by a fast-moving storm system that moved across Virginia and much of the mid Atlantic region. Steve Keighton with the National Weather Service storm survey team confirmed the damage in Pulaski was caused by two tornadoes – one an EF-2 and the other “a strong EF-1.”

Members of the Virginia Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) sent responders to the Pulaski area to assist in searching damaged structures, clearing debris and assisting victims.

The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Pulaski Elementary School. About 50 people were sheltered Friday and Saturday.

Trenessidahsaen Edmonds was one of the storm survivors who sought shelter at the school. She said virtually everything she had was lost to the storm. Despite the loss, she said people at the shelter helped her.

“They have helped us a lot; they helped pick your spirits up,” Edmonds said. “At first I was loosing all hope.”

Edmonds’ Bertha Street home was located in the heart of the hardest-hit part of Pulaski.

Ricky Edwards grew up in the same neighborhood where the first tornado hit his house Friday evening. Edwards said his home used to be two stories, but now only the ground floor remains. He also said he hardly recognizes the neighborhood he has known all his life.

“It looks like a war zone. Trees are down everywhere and it just doesn't look like the same neighborhood anymore,” Edwards said. “It is just demolished.”

Another Pulaski resident, Bill White, said he was able to just get his elderly mother to safety steps ahead of the tornado that devastated their home.

“A brown cloud started coming over the mountain and, as clichéd as it does sound, it sounded like a freight train. As soon as I hit the front door, trying to get my 84-year-old mother to safety, the cloud was right behind me,” White said. “As soon as I hit the front door, the heavens opened up, the winds started blowing and the trees started flying by the windows.”

He said the twister severely damaged his home, destroyed a barn and uprooted 40-year-old pine trees.

“It’s just devastation; that’s the only word for it,” he said.

Stephanie Bishop, a resident of the unincorporated Draper community adjacent to Pulaski, said she arrived home just after the storm only to find her house reduced to large piles of unrecognizable rubble. She said the sight of the destroyed home site “took me to my knees.”

“We pulled up on the wreckage last night and I just got out of the car and just hit my knees. It’s just incredible,” Bishop said. “It’s hard to look at this and think this is where I grew up; my house is completely gone.”

Bishop and family members spent much of Saturday picking through the wreckage for irreplaceable family mementos and treasures. She also said they found three of the family’s dogs alive and well, and were hoping the fourth also survived.

“It’s like a bomb went off; it’s just demolished,” Bishop said.

Pulaski Mayor Jeff Worrell placed much of the town under an 8 p.m. – 6 a.m. curfew until further notice.

“A curfew is in effect in the Town of Pulaski in the area south of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and west of Washington Avenue,” Worrell said in a statement. “The curfew is in effect from 8 p.m. and until 6 a.m. nightly until further notice. All residents should avoid this area during curfew hours.”

Officials also issued a boil notice for areas of the community south of the railroad tracks due to storm damage to the city’s water facilities.

A distribution site to provide free drinking water for residents was established at a local shopping center. On Saturday, the first day of distribution, relief workers – many of them volunteers from Virginia VOAD, local churches and aid agencies – gave out more than 3,750 gallons of water. A shipment of 5,400 additional gallons of water was being sent to Pulaski from a Wal-Mart distribution center in Midway, Tenn.

Additionally, a supply of tarps was also being made available to cover damaged roofs and protect exposed property.

The first tornado, which had winds estimated at 125 mph, touched down on Mount Olivet Road and then moved to the southeast. The heaviest damage was reported along Pulaski Street, Valley Road and Maple Street.

In the hard-hit areas, a number of homes had their roofs torn off and numerous large trees were snapped. The eight reported injuries were associated with the first tornado.

The twister left a path almost two miles long and 440 yards wide, according to city officials.

The second tornado touched down near the National Guard armory and then crossed Interstate 81. A gas station and several homes were damaged; one mobile home was reported totally demolished.

The National Weather Service rated the second storm “a strong EF-1” with estimated winds of 105 to 110 mph.

The second tornado had a path 480 yards wide and 2.6 miles long.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency in response to the tornado damage. The state of emergency authorized state agencies to assist local efforts in responding to the damage in Pulaski and Draper.

At the height of the storm, more than 4,600 homes lost power, according to Appalachian Power Company. That number represented roughly a quarter of the homes in Pulaski County.

Friday’s tornadoes were the first to be reported in Pulaski County since records began being kept.

In addition to Pulaski County, parts of Floyd, Carroll and Patrick counties were under tornado warnings Friday evening as the storm front moved through western Virginia. The storms developed along a stalled front separating cool air to the northeast and warm air to the southwest.

Hail up to an inch in diameter was reported in Pulaski, as well as in the southern Floyd County town of Indian Valley by spotters, according to the National Weather Service.

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