Tornado devastates Suffolk; more than 200 people were injured

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A tornado touched down multiple times in Suffolk on Monday, causing widespread damage and leaving more than 200 people injured.

The tornado struck just after 4 p.m., damaging Sentara Obici Hospital and wrecking nearby subdivisions and a shopping center.

At least 13 homes were damaged in two downtown subdivisions and in the small town of Driver, police spokeswoman Lt. Debbie George said.

The tornado cut a swath of devastation through Driver, wiping out historic landmarks.

Suffolk Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Judkins described the twister as a "major disaster."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency, directing state agencies to take all necessary action to aid in the response to widespread damage from the severe weather.

Agencies assisting include the Virginia departments of Emergency Management, Marine Resources and Transportation and the Virginia State Police.

The tornado swept trees onto homes, blocked roads and pushed cars on top of one another.

At least 200 people were injured throughout the state, with the Suffolk area and Colonial Heights near Richmond the two areas that were most severely affected.

The Burnetts Mill neighborhood in Suffolk was subject to a mandatory evacuation Monday afternoon just after 5 p.m., after the tornado wrecked homes, caused a gas leak and knocked out power.

Jon Mark Menta, who lives in the neighborhood, said the north side of the subdivision had been hit hardest.

Residents were bused to an emergency shelter that was set up at King's Fork High School.

George said at least one tornado had touched down on the Route 10 corridor near Route 58.

"There is severe damage to homes and vehicles and property in the Hillpoint Farms neighborhood and Burnetts Mill," George said.

"We have houses down, a strip shopping center has been damaged, along with numerous vehicles."

Scenes of devastation were reported at the shopping plaza on Route 10 and Route 58, which was wrecked, while cars in the parking lot were reported to be on top of one another in the wake of the storm.

The two roads were blocked for much of the night as state police from all over Virginia arrived to help while trees and abandoned and wrecked vehicles were removed.

Sentara Obici spokeswoman Cheri Hinshelwood said the vast majority of those arriving had minor injuries and were expected to be treated and released from the hospital. More serious injuries included one head injury and one chest injury.

Although the hospital was hit and a wall knocked down by the parking lot, the hospital remained operational throughout the storm, she said: "The hospital building itself sustained very minor damage to a handful of windows, which were cracked during the storm."

The Driver community was reported as "demolished" by at least two tornadoes.

An eyewitness told WTKR-TV 3 she had seen two tornadoes in Driver and they had caused serious damage to the small town .

"The town of Driver is demolished," she said.

The Driver Variety Store once sat, geographically, at the town's center. The building no longer exists. Long a gathering place for political and town gossip, the Variety Store was one of several buildings on Driver's main thoroughfare destroyed by the storm.

The antique shop, Harmony House, was leveled by high winds.

Less than a quarter-mile away, Shawn Kania was sitting at her kitchen table working on homework with her three children when she noticed it was getting unusually dark.

"I went to my kitchen window, which faces Driver, and I watched off in the distance the clouds spinning," she said.

At the time, the storm appeared to be moving away, she said: "I called my son over because he's all into tornadoes now. He's 10. I said, 'Look, look.'"

When it appeared the tornado had left the area, Kania went back to her kids' homework. Then it started getting darker again.

"All the sudden, the power went out," she said. "I went back to the window, and I could see in Driver stuff blowing up. I said, 'Oh my God!' I screamed at the kids to get in the closet under the stairs."

She and the children corralled their two Yorkie dogs and some pillows and made it into the tiny closet. Her two girls started crying. "You could just feel it, like you were inside it," she said. "The whole time you're just wondering what in the world was going to happen. You didn't know what was happening on the outside of that door, just hoping that nothing was falling in on us."

The house survived, but Driver, surrounded by open farmland, appeared to have taken a direct hit.

Holly Williams, who works at an after-school program at Driver Elementary School, said she escorted children to the school cafeteria after the tornado hit just after 4 p.m. They heard glass break in the school kitchen.

A janitor told them there was a gas leak in the school, and Williams helped evacuate seven children from 5 to 15 years old to nearby Beech Grove Church, many of them crying.

Bobbie Lassiter said a tree fell across her driveway in Driver, and her awning and chimney collapsed. "It was something I never want to go through again. I have been blessed," she said.

Linda O'Keefe said her home in Driver had been spared while there was devastation all around. But a large oak tree was felled by the storm, it split in two, damaging her fence.

She described the scene in the historic town as "bad."

Portsmouth sent police officers to assist the town. And Chesapeake fire service sent fire trucks and ambulances. Chesapeake Fire Chief Dan Fermil said five engine companies, a ladder company, three medic companies, an EMS supervisor, a battalion chief and one heavy squad were sent to Suffolk to assist with care and rescue.

Staff writer Patrick Lynch contributed to this report.

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