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Residents thankful to be alive after tornado

By Jimmy LaRoue, Alex Perry and Tracy Agnew

Suffolk residents spent Sunday and Monday assessing damage, cleaning up and marveling at the power of a tornado — and the fact nobody was injured — following the EF-1 twister that tracked about two miles near downtown Suffolk on Sunday evening.

The National Weather Service confirmed on Sunday that the tornado, with winds of 85 to 90 miles per hour, touched down from 6:52 to 6:55 p.m. At a maximum width of 200 yards, it formed over the Nansemond River near Main Street and roared past the Hilton Garden Inn, through the River Point neighborhood and down MacArthur Drive and Myrtle Street, across East Constance Road and into the Hollywood neighborhood.

In all, 34 homes and seven commercial structures sustained damage ranging from minor to destroyed.

Several homes on MacArthur Drive sustained heavy damage, with many trees down on houses in the neighborhood.

“It was a big shock,” said Josh West, who returned home after the storm to find trees on his home on the corner of MacArthur Drive and Wilroy Road. He and his wife, Kriston, and their children, a 1-and-a-half-year-old and a 3-week-old, weren’t home at the time.

They found a tree cutting through an upstairs bedroom, into a dining room area on the first floor and all the way to the floor.

“You don’t know what to do,” West said. “It’s a lot of memories. We tried to take it all in and then tried to come up with a game plan.”

Farther down the street, Jimmie Dennis and his son-in-law were outside working on a shed when the storm blew up more quickly than they could have anticipated.

“All of a sudden, the wind was coming from that way and it switched directions, and everything started spinning,” he said. “Some stuff passed us and then came back at us.”

They made a run for the house but didn’t make it, ducking into a smaller shed where some wood hit Dennis in the back. Thankfully, he wasn’t injured, but the house sustained heavy damage.

“The whole house is cracked up,” he said. “There’s water in the ceiling and sheetrock falling.”

For Kristen Campbell, the worst part on Saturday was the unknown. She could see from East Constance that several pine trees near her house on MacArthur had lost their tops, but she couldn’t see which way they had fallen.

“I was thankful that these pine trees didn’t fall in the opposite direction,” she said. The house was still damaged, having lost its chimney and gotten holes in the roof.

Still, Campbell was grateful. “This is stuff, and stuff can be replaced, but lives can’t,” she said.

Susanne Greene was watching television in her River Point residence Saturday evening when the rain and wind picked up momentum outside.

She said it didn’t sound quite like hail, but something was definitely hitting the walls.

She muted her television. Then she looked outside to see a wall of greenery coming towards the house.

“I thought a tree was coming at my house,” Greene said as she looked at the broken tree limbs in the backyard on Sunday morning, “and then the wind picked up. It sounded like a roar.”

She went into the laundry room for cover during the worst of it, which she said lasted for about 30 seconds before it slowed down to steady, windy rain.

Looking at the debris in the waterfront backyard Sunday morning, she said that she’s grateful. It could have been much worse.

“Damage to our section was minimal compared to other neighbors,” she said.

Rich Kovalik, the president of the homeowners’ association for River Point, took his dog for a walk Sunday morning and surveyed neighborhood damages. Early that morning, he counted about 21 different units that were damaged. Some were just missing shingles — others had their chimneys completely ripped off.

“It’s devastating to see all the trees and everything and torn up buildings,” he said. “But we’re just blessed that we haven’t had any personal injury that I know of.”

Abraham Mitchell, who owns several homes on Wilson Street, said about eight homes there suffered damage from trees “pulled up from their roots.”

Linda Massenburg said this is the last time she will ignore a tornado warning.

The Florida Avenue resident was sitting on her screened-in back porch just before the tornado. Her grandchildren were out in the yard playing under a tree, and other family members, including two sons who had just arrived from Florida, sat nearby as they converged at her home for Mother’s Day weekend.

Minutes before the storm passed through her neighborhood, family members’ phones buzzed with an alert for a tornado warning, and they retreated to her living room.

“By the time we had got in the house and sat down in the living room, all of a sudden, the wind started blowing,” said Massenburg, 65. “We didn’t pay it no mind. We just thought it was going to be a breeze. And then we heard this squealing noise and it hit through my bedroom window.”

That was when the tornado blew out windows in her home, damaged some gutters and sent tree limbs and other debris scattering in her backyard. She would later discover a leaking furnace.

“We heard something go ‘boom,’ and I went in there and glass was all over the bed, and a shingle hit my TV,” Massenburg said.

Still, she was able to celebrate Mother’s Day with her family, even as Saturday will be one she won’t soon forget.

“I will never ignore it again, never in my life,” Massenburg said. “This was a life lesson learned for me.”

Farther down Florida Avenue, Daniel Bullock’s home also had scattered debris in the front and back yards, an awning hanging gingerly above a window of his home, as well as damage to his roof and garage.

“All that wind blew through here, and I never heard it blow like that,” said Bullock, 84, who has lived at his home for 52 years. “I was sitting in the den, but it came up so fast I didn’t have time to move.”

Over on Myrtle Street on Monday, Arnold and Lee Haynes were waiting for claims adjusters to show up at the home they have lived in for more than 15 years. Out of town at the time of the storm, they were getting reports about their house from a neighbor, and they also were able to identify their damaged house on TV. When they got back home Sunday afternoon, the reality of the tornado’s damage hit them.

“To get here, to see what happened, the power of Mother Nature, never underestimate it,” Arnold Haynes said. “The biggest thing is that, the neighborhood, people helping people, is phenomenal, and it still happens. It is still a neighborhood, and Suffolk still is that way.”

They had trees down in the yard, windows blown out, and tree limbs and other debris all over their yard. On Sunday, people from Gates County stopped and helped them clean up debris Sunday, and on Monday while standing outside their house, someone drove past and offered his help and support to the neighborhood.

Arnold Haynes said he was staggered by the amount of glass he and his wife found inside their home. They’re still sweeping up glass two days later.

His wife is still trying to make sense of what happened.

“I’m the silent one,” Lee Haynes said. “I’m still processing it. The shock ain’t even coming up to look at it today to work on it. I just felt this major sense of loss even though it’s not the whole house. But it’s all the work that it’s going to take. It’s (devastating). That’s the word.”

Across Wilroy Avenue on Myrtle Street, Justin McKenzie said he had been asleep just before the tornado came through and his son, 2-year-old Connor McKenzie, woke him up after waking up from his own nap.

His fiancée, Elizabeth Thornton, had asked him to retrieve their son’s bicycle from outside, but before he could do that, the storm was already on top of them, and they had time to hunker down in a hallway of their home.

“Before I could get my hoodie and come back, the tornado came and roared right down the street,” Justin McKenzie said.

Other than a blown-out window to his car and a flagpole that was uprooted, his home was not damaged.

“We’re definitely lucky out here,” McKenzie said Monday afternoon watching a neighbor’s tree being removed from his backyard. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Richard Mead said he was concerned about his neighbor, and said the neighborhood had already seen its share of stormchasers looking to take care of fallen trees. He said they heard the rain, the wind and the noise of the storm, but didn’t hear his own tree snap and fall in his yard.

A few minutes before the tornado passed through his neighborhood, around 6:45 p.m., his wife had gone outside to get mail that was scattered on the ground. The two were in their living room in the front of the house but did not hear the tree that fell down in their yard.

“The tree went that way, instead of going (toward the house),” Mead said, pointing to the left side of his front yard. “Thank God. It would have killed us. That’s a big … tree. We saw it was raining like hell, we had the blinds closed. We didn’t even see it come down.”

Sunday, he said, they went out and bought lottery tickets.

Hilton Garden Inn General Manager Brian Williams said the hotel was about 65-percent occupied at the time of the storm, and other than a turned-over charcoal grill, it did not sustain any damage. Williams said the hotel has a plan for sheltering during a tornado, which is to have guests go to a windowless interior ballroom or an interior bathroom in their guest room. Its lights flickered a few times, but the hotel did not lose power.

A video posted on Facebook Sunday showed a time-lapse view of the storm forming over the river behind the hotel.

“It started right out in back here,” Williams said, pointing to the Nansemond River adjacent to the hotel. “Right over the river.”