‘Strength and resiliency’

Published 11:34 pm Friday, April 27, 2018

10 years later, city officials reflect

April 28, 2008, was a normal Monday for most everybody in Suffolk, including city officials.

Department heads met with the city manager for a routine Monday afternoon meeting. The mayor was talking to someone on the phone who mentioned the sky looked ominous. Police officers went about their business.

But when a tornado watch turned to a warning, and when reports started coming in that it had actually touched down, everyone sprang into action.

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“It’s certainly a day that will never leave my mind,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said this week, reflecting on that day 10 years ago. “Your first response is shock. Your second response is, ‘What are we going to do?’ The miraculous part is how everybody came together, and we were so spared that nobody lost their life.”

Many city staffers have distinct memories of that day. City Manager Patrick Roberts, who was then assistant director of community development, remembers walking to the back of city hall and taking a look at the clouds.

“I remember distinctly the clouds looked a way they’d never looked before,” he said. “They were going really, really fast out of the south. I made a mental note later that night to always remember what that looked like.”

He walked out of the old City Hall and, due to its proximity to the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad station and Suffolk Fire & Rescue’s Station 1, could hear multiple calls being dispatched.

“I knew something was going on,” he said.

City Chief of Staff Debbie George, who was then detective lieutenant and public information officer in the Suffolk Police Department, walked outside with other detectives when reports of a funnel cloud started to come in. When news of the touchdown came in, she headed to the scene.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson was talking to someone on the phone who was near Route 460 and mentioned the sky looked ominous. Soon, her son called and said he was coming to get her, and they headed to the King’s Fork area.

“I can’t even say it felt real,” Johnson said this week. “It was just a really strange afternoon.”

When she arrived in the Burnett’s Mill area, George met up with then-Suffolk Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Ed Taylor, who was the first incident commander.

“We didn’t have any resources,” George said. “We were literally working on the back of our vehicles at that point.”

Reports were coming in of more possible tornadoes in the area, and radios and cell phones weren’t working.

“We needed to get to some landlines so we could communicate,” George said.

Police knocked on the door of the newly built Sentara ambulatory center for phones and shelter.

“They were kind enough to let us in — and it was over a week before we left again,” George said.

Emergency responders were tackling the most serious calls first. Search and rescue teams went door-to-door clearing houses.

“I don’t think it was until the next morning that we had a clear picture of the extent of the damage, but we were taking care of the most serious calls,” George said. “We had people that were trapped in their vehicles, under trees, people trapped in their homes, gas lines broken.”

Later that night, George experienced one of her defining moments of the day.

“We were in the building for hours dealing with the incidents that were going on,” she said. “At some point it got dark outside and I walked outside to speak with a member of the media. It was raining, and I looked up Route 10 and as far as I could see it was blue lights. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. You realized we weren’t in it by ourselves; there were people willing to help us.”

Scott Mills, who was acting deputy city manager then and now permanently fills the role, also has a vivid memory of going through a house the next day with a member of Suffolk Police.

“We went in a house that had no roof, and trashcans had been blown inside the house,” he said. “I looked in this little interior bathroom, and there was a toothbrush sitting (horizontally) on top of a cup.”

It was a powerful object lesson about why the safest place during a tornado is an interior room, Mills added.

“That little toothbrush was not disturbed, but the rest of the house was trashed,” he said.

The emergency operations center at the time was in a tiny room in Station 3 on White Marsh Road, and many city staff wound up gathering there.

George said then-City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn realized there needed to be a method to communicate with residents, so community meetings were set up. The first one took place that Wednesday, about 48 hours after the storm.

“I think that alleviated some of their fears, some of their concerns,” George said. “It helped bring the community together so that the community was working with the city.”

Adjoining localities and state and federal agencies sent multiple resources. Volunteers from organizations like Suffolk’s Open Door Church as well as Operation Blessing, Samaritan’s Purse and the U.S. Navy all swooped in to help.

Roberts and George especially praised United Way for coordinating the volunteer and donation response.

“I’ve been a big, big supporter of the United Way since April 29, 2008,” Roberts said.

“I don’t think that Suffolk would have been able to handle everything by ourselves,” George added.

The city has changed in myriad ways big and small since the tornado, and many of them would have happened whether the storm had come through or not.

But the tornado brought some things specifically that turned out to be positives in the long run. The officials named just a few of them.

“I think one of the big things that you saw from it was the support for the fire station on Kings Fork Road,” George said. “We recognized some of the resources that we didn’t have. Now, we have an (Emergency Operations Center) that can handle anything, that has all the resources we did not have at that time.”

Mayor Johnson echoed that.

“We have a so much better emergency operations center now,” Johnson said. “If that day did one thing, it showed us some of the things we really needed to do. I don’t want to say we weren’t prepared, because I don’t think you can ever be prepared, but we’re so much better prepared today with our EOC and dispatchers and equipment.

“None of that makes up for the people,” Johnson added, “because that’s what got everybody through.”

Roberts added that the city and its staff, even those who weren’t here during the tornado, now have a fuller appreciation for the federal and state departments that helped.

“The fact we went through that experience without a loss of life was invaluable,” Roberts said. “You can’t buy that kind of experience and knowledge of how to interact with the state and federal bureaucracy in the most rapid, orderly way.”

Roberts added that the city more fully recognizes the value of ensuring the city’s emergency management plan and emergency procurement contracts stay up-to-date.

“As things change, we don’t let things fall through the cracks,” he said.

Mills said he, like many who lived through the experience, no longer takes weather warnings for granted.

“It’s made everybody aware of, we can get hit by that kind of weather, because we have been,” he said.

Mayor Johnson, as she has often since the tornado, also mentioned the way the city and its residents pulled together in the aftermath.

“I just think we’re special,” she said. “We have this way of putting everything aside. People come together and find a way to do it.

“I think it showed the strength and resiliency of the people,” she added. “Even the people that were most affected were helping each other, even though some of them had lost their homes.”