Businesses slow to rebound after tornado

Published 10:55 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

The day started out normally enough.

But around 4 p.m., everything got turned around.

Exactly six months after a tornado tore through the middle of Suffolk, shredding homes and businesses in its path, the recovery effort marches on.

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The April 28 twister generated winds of up to 160 mph and caused an estimated $20 million in damage, touching down first in the Hillpoint community and then in the North Suffolk village of Driver.

Somehow, no one was killed or suffered serious injuries.

But the tornado took a devastating toll on approximately 150 homes and businesses. Roofs and walls were ripped away and buildings collapsed around people.

The days that followed were a blur. Law enforcement officials worked around the clock, as volunteers and disaster relief teams from around the country helped Suffolk clean up rubble left in the tornado’s wake.

Stunned residents began getting their first looks at their crumbled homes. Many were fortunate enough to salvage pieces of their lives – a wedding ring, photographs, even a Christmas wreath.

Then came the rebuilding. For some, the work lasted just two or three months; it was a matter of dealing with insurance adjustors and having a roof or faade repaired or replaced.

But for many, the work is just getting started.

Reconstruction just got under way at Freedom Plaza, which had only been open for three or four months when struck by the tornado. The shopping center, where city officials held most of their daily press briefings, seemed to become Suffolk’s tornado poster child in the days after the disaster.

Work crews began framing the 21,000-square-foot shopping center, across from Sentara Obici Hospital, about two weeks ago.

Three occupants of the small strip center – Jammin’ Jerk Barbecue, Sal’s Pizza and the military recruitment center – have committed to returning to the $2.5 million center when it reopens around March, said Scott Marlow, owner of Marlow Properties in Newport News.

“I’m hoping to have a big grand opening next April,” Marlow said. “I want to show Suffolk we are up and running and back in business.”

The shopping center will look a little different, Marlow said. The building will have space for about 15 tenants and will face Godwin Boulevard, with higher visibility and traffic volume than it used to have.

Marlow, who bought the shopping center in January, said he was watching the news when he saw images of a flattened Freedom Plaza.

“My first thought was the tenants,” he said. “I was worried about the people. It was just a miracle from God that nobody was killed.”

Most of the handful of businesses in Driver’s historic village have reopened. While Craig Parker, who owned Driver Variety Store, is planning to rebuild, he says he is still dealing with the insurance company to settle the loss.

He says it will probably be spring before he’s able to begin construction. Meanwhile, he and his cronies frequently pass time sitting in chairs at the corner of Driver Lane and Kings Highway, where all that remains is the wooden foundation of his former shop.