SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – “Chaos.”
That’s the word Suffolk Emergency 911 Dispatcher Christina Gardner said immediately when thinking of the April 28, 2008 afternoon that an EF-3 tornado descended upon the city.
Friday marks 15 years since the destructive tornado ripped through Suffolk shortly after 4 p.m.
Super Doppler 10 Meteorologist Jeremy Wheeler was working that day. In the morning, rain showers were around. While meteorologists knew severe weather was possible, he said not many expected it to be as bad as it was.
“This was the biggest tornado we had in many many years if not decade,” Wheeler said. “Folks thought we were safe. Folks thought, we don’t get tornadoes here. That day, that changed.”
The safest place to be in a tornado is in a basement, but in our area, not many homes have basements. Therefore, we often recommend you get to the lowest floor interior room and put as many walls between you and the outside as possible. Cover your head with pillows, blankets, or wear a helmet if you have on.
When severe weather is expected, a tornado watch is often issued. A watch means conditions are favorable for severe weather. When a storm is expected to produce a tornado, a tornado warning is issued.
At 3:50 p.m., a tornado warning was issued saying “doppler radar indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado near Holland, moving northeast…” The National Weather Service would issue a total of 17 tornado warnings that day – but none were for a tornado as strong as the one that hit Suffolk.
In dispatch, Gardner and her colleagues turned the TV on, looking for information. Confirmation of the tornado soon came over the radio.
“One of our officers, he was in the Murphys Mill area off Main Street – and he spotted the funnel cloud. Almost as soon as he said that – 911 lit up”
Shortly after 4 p.m., the twister touched down. The EF-3 tornado tore a path 24 miles long – twisting trees, leveling homes and tossing objects through the air with ease.
“I remember talking to someone upside down in their car – I remember that vividly – there was so much constant telephone calls and radio traffic – it was a very vivid day,” Gardner said.
Rachel Gayle was off that day, but came into dispatch to help soon after the tornado touched down.
“The phones did not stop ringing for hours – people trying to find their kids – it was a very hectic time,” Gayle said.
At one time, so many calls were coming into Suffolk Dispatch that 911 calls were being forwarded to Chesapeake.
Shortly after the tornado, Chopper 10 was in the air flying over the damage. In aerial pictures and videos, you quickly got a perspective of how widespread and strong the tornado was. Numerous homes had roof or structural damage. Cars were tossed around like toothpicks. Office buildings and commercial buildings – unrecognizable.
While 200 people were injured – miraculously – nobody was killed.
Now, 15 years later – the memories remain – but Suffolk has rebuilt – stronger – and stands ready for whatever nature brings.
“We have spaces, better equipment now, better radio equipment,” Gardner said. “Text to 911 technology. We overall just have better tools to lead to public safety.”