By Jennie Lynn Price
Capital News Service
GLOUCESTER — Some big portions of Page Middle School in Gloucester aren’t there any more, thanks to the April 16 tornado that destroyed much of the school and sent yellow buses tumbling into a neighboring field.
“Fortunately it happened on a Saturday evening when no children were present,” said Shirley Chirch, environmental health and safety manager for Gloucester County Public Schools. “That was such a blessing.”
The storm was one of 11 confirmed tornadoes that touched down across North Carolina and Virginia that Saturday, killing three people in Gloucester and 12 in Bertie County, N.C.
The storm winds were so strong that mail from Bertie County was found 90 miles away on the Eastern Shore of Virginia after the severe weather had passed.
Four months into this year, Virginia has had 31 confirmed tornadoes — 29 of them in April. That makes last month the most active April in modern Virginia history, said Bill Sammler, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wakefield.
The commonwealth usually averages around seven tornadoes a year.
Severe weather moved across much of the nation in the latter part of the month. From April 25-28, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 305 tornadoes touched down across the South. Hardest hit were Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., where the storms caused at least 65 of the 318 fatalities reported for the four-day period.
Before April 2011, the largest number of tornadoes on record in one event was the “Super Outbreak” of 1974. From April 3-4 of that year, 148 tornadoes killed 315 people nationally and injured more than 5,000. Eight of those tornadoes touched down in Virginia.
One factor that seems to be at least partially responsible for the especially active tornado season is La Niña, or unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Pacific, Sammler said.
Several historic tornado outbreaks — including the Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965, the “Super Outbreak” of 1974 and the events last month — all occurred in Aprils following La Niña winters.
Tornado risk in Virginia is different than other places, Sammler said. Some areas, like the Midwest, have a shorter, more defined season. In Virginia, the risk starts in spring and doesn’t end until mid to late fall, due to the threat from tropical storm systems.
The most ubiquitous and important advice when preparing for severe weather is to have a plan.
The lead time for a tornado is about 13 minutes, said Evan Stewart, meteorologist at television station WVEC in Hampton Roads. That leaves about 12 minutes to react after a warning goes out, he said.
When a tornado warning goes out, it is time to take immediate action. A warning means that a tornado has been spotted or has been picked up on radar. A tornado watch, often the precursor to a warning, means conditions are favorable for a tornado and that tornadoes are possible.
Ideally, the best place to take shelter is a basement. In the absence of a basement, the best place is an interior room on the lowest floor away from any windows; that could mean a closet or a hallway. Stewart recommends an interior bathroom because the pipes may help strengthen the walls of the room.
The crawlspace underneath a home can also be a good place to go if a basement isn’t available. It may be unpleasant, but it is an effective shelter.
Families should consider practicing a tornado drill as they would a fire drill, Stewart said. The most important thing is to be prepared and plan where to go to be safe.
In a tornado warning situation, it is important to relay the urgency of the situation to the public, Stewart said.
“There’s a rush of adrenaline tracking the storm,” he said, “But it’s tempered by what could be happening on the ground.”
A tornado safety plan is especially important for mobile home residents.
“We see a lot of heartache when it comes to mobile homes,” said Laura Southard, public outreach coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Mobile homes are especially susceptible to damage from wind and falling trees, because of this, VDEM recommends that mobile home residents plan to go somewhere else in severe weather.
If shelter is not available when a tornado hits, the best thing to do is to lie flat in a ditch or other low-lying area. Vehicles can become airborne or roll over in a storm. VDEM also cautions against sheltering under a bridge or overpass. Crawling under a highway overpass is popularly accepted advice, but the space can become a wind tunnel instead of a safe shelter.
At Page Middle School, officials are still evaluating and assessing the damage. What remains of the back section of school will have to be demolished, while the front section of the building will likely be repaired, Chirch said.
It will take at least four weeks to remove asbestos ceilings, electrical systems and the systems for heating, ventilating and air conditioning in order to access the roof and assess its condition.
Seven school buses were demolished in the storm. Ten others received minor damage, including broken windows. The district has pulled older buses into rotation and started making double runs to compensate for the losses.
As for next year, Gloucester County plans to install a modular system in the high school parking lot to house eighth graders whose classrooms were located in the heavily damaged back section at Page.
“I was amazed at the damage,” Chirch said. “This is a bricks-and-mortar building.”
CNS reporter Jennie Lynn Price took these photos of the tornado damage:
On the Web
For a downloadable emergency checklist, including reminders about dust masks and drinking water, from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, visit www.readyvirginia.gov/getakit/Kit.pdf.
To see an interactive map of April’s tornadoes from the Associated Press, visit apne.ws/apriltornadoes.
Stay Safe After the Storm
Here are tips for recovery efforts from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management:
Continue to monitor the news for emergency information.
Be careful when entering any structure that has been damaged.
Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves and gloves when handling or walking on or near debris.
Wear safety glasses or protective eye wear when working with debris to avoid eye injury.
Be aware of hazards from exposed nails and broken glass.
Do not touch downed power lines or objects in contact with downed lines. Report electrical hazards to the police and the utility company.
Use battery-powered lanterns, if possible, rather than candles to light homes without electrical power. Never leave a candle burning when you are out of the room.
Never use generators, pressure washers, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, garage or camper, or even outside near an open window, door or vent. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if you breathe it. The gas can build up in your home, garage or camper and poison the people and animals inside. Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated.
Respond to requests for volunteer assistance by police, fire fighters, emergency management and relief organizations, but do not go into damaged areas unless assistance has been requested. Your presence could hamper relief efforts and you could endanger yourself.
If you suspect any damage to your home, shut off electrical power, natural gas and propane tanks to avoid fire, electrocution or explosions.
If it is dark when you are inspecting your home, use a flashlight rather than a candle or torch to avoid the risk of fire or explosion in a damaged home.
If you see frayed wiring or sparks, or if there is an odor of something burning, you should immediately shut off the electrical system at the main circuit breaker if you have not done so already.
If you smell gas or suspect a leak, turn off the main gas valve, open all windows and leave the house immediately. Notify the gas company, the police or fire departments or State Fire Marshal’s office, and do not turn on the lights, light matches, smoke or do anything that could cause a spark. Do not return to your house until you are told it is safe to do so.