Get prepared for twisters

Published 10:34 pm Monday, March 14, 2011

Tornados seem like such a rarity in Virginia. But when they happen, they’re devastating.

Suffolk residents saw the effects of tornados in April 2008, when a tornado tore a path of destruction through several Suffolk neighborhoods and business districts. Though no lives were lost and injuries were few and mostly minor, hundreds of homes and businesses were flattened, cars were ruined, trees were uprooted and lives were shattered.

It’s unclear whether the lack of deaths is best attributed to the time of day, when most people were still at work or heading home from work, or to a widespread knowledge of what to do in case of a tornado. Likely, it was a combination of both.

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A tornado in Virginia is not entirely out of the ordinary, either. Though somewhat unusual compared to those in the Midwest, Suffolk’s 2008 tornado was hardly the first or the last twister to hit Virginia.

My first experience with the aftermath of a tornado was when I was a young child. My mom and I went shopping at the mall, with plans to hit a flea market in Newport News afterward.

In one of those mysterious ways that God works, my mom was sucked into taking one of those polls they sometimes conduct at malls. What they told us would take 10 minutes wound up taking, in my recollection, about an hour and a half.

When we finally left and made our way toward the flea market, we encountered trees down across roadways, homes damaged, emergency vehicles everywhere and general mass chaos. I remember my mom saying, “Only a tornado could have done this. We have to check on your grandmother.”

My dad’s mom lived near where we found all the destruction. Fortunately, her neighborhood had been unharmed, and she didn’t even realize a tornado had been through the area until we told her about the scene barely a half-mile away.

Fast-forward to 2008, and I found myself trekking through the Burnett’s Mill area with a camera and a notebook, talking to scared residents, taking photos of homes torn apart and flashing back to that moment as a child that, until that point, had formed my entire experience with the destruction that tornados can cause. Covering the aftermath of the Suffolk tornado formed a far more lasting memory for me, because I truly saw how even a well-built home can be ripped apart at the seams and spread across miles of land and water.

That’s why I would encourage everyone to take advantage of today’s tornado preparedness day and familiarize themselves with the best ways to avoid injury from a twister. Your life could depend on it.