Virginians allowed to return to homes ravaged by twisters

Thursday, May 1, 2008

SUFFOLK, Va. — Beth Catania returned Wednesday to the home that had collapsed around her during a tornado to see what she could retrieve. She came away with a few small items, including an antique domino that was a gift from her son.

"There isn't anything there," said Catania, who hid in a closet that exploded as the tornado broke apart the house she recently put on the market. The force blew off her shoes and sent her rolling for several feet, but she was OK except for cuts and bruises.

"The biggest old tree on the property is gone and I'm still here," she said.

Residents of neighborhoods ravaged by the worst of Monday's tornadoes, which flattened homes and other buildings but spared lives, were allowed to move back home Wednesday — if their houses were still livable. Many found their houses spray-painted with a blue "X," indicating they had been condemned.

The National Weather Service confirmed Wednesday that eight tornadoes struck Virginia over four hours Monday, meteorologist Bryan Jackson said. Weather officials were trying to determine whether two additional storms also were tornadoes, he said.

The damage may total tens of millions of dollars in Suffolk, a city of 80,000 that was hit by the worst of the tornadoes. Officials let residents go through their belongings and bring in contractors and insurance adjusters to begin figuring out what could be salvaged and what could be rebuilt.

Some said they were frustrated that they weren't able to go home sooner and complained about what they said was a lack of information from officials, who were relying largely on the media to spread word of developments.

Later, officials decided it was safe to let people go home permanently.

Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson said officials had to make sure debris was cleared from roads and that electricity and gas lines presented no danger.

"All it would have taken was for somebody to throw a cigarette down and we could have had another disaster," Johnson said as she walked through a devastated neighborhood, stopping to talk to and hug returning residents.

"I'm frustrated, too," she added. "This is a heartbreak for our city."

Dewitt Dorsey, who has lived in his subdivision for 14 years, said he knew safety was a concern but that people should have been allowed to return home Tuesday.

"They cut the power. They had inspectors there," he said. "We should have been able to come back, too."

The twister sheared off the siding from an entire wall of Dorsey's house, blasted out the windows and dumped the top of his wife's china cabinet out onto the driveway, shattering its contents and spraying the pieces.

The basketball hoop his grandchildren play with was knocked over, and the garage it once stood by was mostly gone.

Asked what was the worst loss, Dorsey paused, looked down and said quietly: "I don't really know at this point."

Inside, his wife Beverly swept up shattered glass and marveled at how the tornado made a mess in some rooms and but left her children's portraits hanging in place on a living room wall and didn't touch the large television set.

"I haven't cried yet. I hate to see it go," she said of the house, "but it's just material things.

"There's no need to be upset because we still have a lot. It's not like we have to start all over again."

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