Williamsburg Storms

Twisted chaos

A storm survey by the National Weather Service found the damage consistent with an EF3 tornado with wind speeds of 136-165 mph.

No one killed, but damage is extensive
By Gazette staff
Modified:
Wednesday, April 20, 2011 2:14 AM EDT
Originally Published: Wednesday, April 20, 2011
JAMES CITY — It took two days for crews to clear trees on top of and around Lucan Baul’s trailer. His was among those in Reid’s Trailer Park in Grove hardest hit by Saturday evening’s tornado.

The roof of a nearby trailer was ripped off, scattering belongings like toys. Other residents from trailers deeper in the park were blocked for days, unable to navigate past the fallen trees.

Baul was at work at Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant when his girlfriend, Markita Welsh, called, hysterical about the approaching storm. She went next door to Patricia Blue’s trailer, where Blue and her twin 9-year-old daughters huddled in the bathroom.

“I told them, ‘Be quiet and pray! Pray!” Blue recalled. Despite the devastation, she sent the girls to school Monday morning.

When Baul got to Grove, he was blocked on Pocahontas. He walked in to the firehouse to discover an ad hoc shelter where Welsh, Blue, her girls and neighbors had escaped.

How bad –– Miraculously, no one was injured or killed.

Kate Hale, director of Emergency Services for James City, said 36 structures were damaged in the storm, including two commercial structures in Grove. Eight structures sustained serious damage, including the six trailers. No official damage estimate has been determined. Hale said most of the damage will be handled by private insurance companies.

In James City, three trailers and a building were condemned.

How big –– Like many others, Blue described the tornado as sounding like a freight train.

A storm survey by the National Weather Service found the damage consistent with an EF3 tornado with wind speeds of 136-165 mph.

The tornado path extended 30 miles. It formed south of the Surry Nuclear Power Station and continued across the James River atop Kingsmill before plunging into Grove. The tornado then traveled across the York River to Gloucester where homes, schools and businesses sustained devastating damage.

Grove damage –– James Banks was in his trailer when the twister blew out his windows before ripping his roof off and sending half of it 50 yards up Pocahontas. He still hasn’t found one of his dog houses.

His neighbor Will Reid said the winds came up Pocahontas and created a domino effect of falling trees, including several that fell on adjacent houses opposite Howard Avenue.

The tops of trees wound up on the railroad tracks behind Grove and were cleared by 8 a.m. Sunday for a freight train to pass. Pocahontas was blocked to traffic until Sunday morning so hcrews from Dominion Power could restore downed power lines. Power was back on by Tuesday.

Across the tracks, the winds took out limbs along Route 143 and Interstate 64, bending a highway sign by 20 degrees.

Why Grove? –– This is the third time Grove has been hit by a tornado or microburst in 18 years.

“There is nothing, from a meteorological point of view, that makes Grove’s geographic setting an attractor for severe weather,” said Chuck Bailey, geology professor at William & Mary. “Grove does reside at the narrowest part of the James-York Peninsula, but supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes are borne in the atmosphere.”

He said Virginia’s average is about 10 tornadoes per year. He explained that conditions Saturday were right to produce lines of huge supercell thunderstorms.

“The wind shear and unstable air conspired to produce tornadoes,” he said. “…predicting the location of where tornadoes would be spawned is only possible once the thunderstorms start firing off.”

Bailey said the strength of the tornado was not affected by the terrain or the water crossings.

Kingsmill –– Severe winds came across the James River and tore up the roof of both four-story condo buildings at River Bluffs, projecting shingles and debris across a ravine and into houses along Sandys’ Fort.

One house took a direct hit through the front and garage and was extensively damaged. Crews were boarding up the place Monday. Three other homes along Sandys’ Fort were damaged as well, mostly at rooftop level.

Just north of Sandys’ Fort, the Woods golf course of Kingsmill suffered considerable tree damage, especially along holes 10, 11, 13 and 14.

Path continues –– A few miles away on the Colonial Parkway, a microburst took down several trees and the sign for Felgates Creek. Trees also came down at the Yorktown Battlefield and Historic Jamestowne.

Relief –– The Red Cross paid for the families to stay in local hotels for a few nights, and Social Services is working on long-term housing.

Recovery –– Local churches organized to assist in the cleanup and repair efforts in Grove. Wellspring United Methodist Church is encouraging its congregation to take up an offering.

On Monday volunteers with Christ Community Church were helping to remove trees blocking access to Baul’s and several other trailers in Grove. Christ Community Church is repairing windows of two mobile homes that were damaged.

More volunteers with the Southern Baptist Convention are expected to come later in the week to continue the cleanup efforts.

What next –– Questions remain about the residents long-term. The Banks trailer was not insured, but the belongings were. Others had no insurance whatsoever. A disaster relief fund has been established. (See box.)

Spared –– Williamsburg was spared with only one downed tree reported on Bypass Road. York County had a handful of felled trees and power lines. York Fire Capt. Paul Long said there were no reports of structure or vehicle damage in York.

Surveying the damage in Grove early Sunday morning, Will Reid said, “This is God’s way of showing that he’s still in charge, and that things need to change.”

Amanda Kerr, Cortney Langley, Susan Robertson and Bill O’Donovan contributed.

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