VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — A rare and powerful tornado sent residents of a coastal city in Virginia fleeing for cover over the weekend as it peeled roofs from buildings and pushed homes from their foundations.
It was the most powerful tornado ever to hit Virginia Beach, Virginia, officials confirmed Monday. No one was reported injured, despite few residents being prepared for tornadoes. Several people described taking cover under stairwells; most lack basements because the water table is so high.
Wreckage from destructive weather dotted the U.S. Monday as officials took stock of unrelated tornadoes and flooding damage from over the weekend, stretching from Florida to Maine.
In Virginia Beach, residents credited a cellphone warning system for helping them take shelter in time. One family escaped injuries by reacting to a weather alert that came less than a minute before the tornado hit.
“It just happened suddenly,” Lori Camper said. “The whole thing lasted 10 seconds.”
She and her visiting daughter looked out the window and saw the trees bending in the wind and ran. The family, including Camper’s grandchildren, aged 2 years and 5 weeks, as well as two dogs, ran into a stairwell — the only place without windows.
“Then all the windows blew out in the kitchen and sucked everything out of the kitchen and a tree fell through the roof,” Camper said. “And now one side of the house is leaning.”
She hadn’t experienced a tornado that strong in the 19 years she had lived there.
“I’m grateful,” she said. “God took care of us.”
No injuries were reported.
Elsewhere, officials were assessing damage Monday in West Virginia, Maine, Florida and California. The National Weather Service confirmed a Saturday tornado in Florida. And high water on the Mississippi River is testing flood defenses in Iowa and Illinois as the river crests in the area Monday.
West Virginia’s eastern mountains could see up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow Tuesday morning as a rare May winter storm moves through, forecasters said. The snow won’t help the area’s ski resorts, which had already closed for the season.
In California, a late-season weather system brought showers and the possibility of high-elevation snow in the Sierra Nevada through the week. Fears of flooding shut down of parts of Yosemite Valley over the weekend. But the National Park Service said the Merced River did not rise as much as expected and the valley reopened on Monday.
In Maine, heavy rain and powerful wind gusts knocked out power for more than 50,000 homes and businesses on Monday morning. Wind gusts of up to 70 mph (115 kph) were reported Sunday near Matinicus Island, about 20 miles offshore, and up to 65 mph (100 kph) onshore in Bath, where Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works has numerous cranes. Rainfall approaching 5 inches (13 centimeters) also led to flood warnings on several rivers in parts of southern Maine.
The Virginia Beach tornado damaged at least 100 buildings, tearing through them with wind speeds as high as 150 mph (240 kph), officials assessing the wreckage and weather data said Monday. The National Weather Service’s Wakefield, Virginia, office confirmed Monday morning that the tornado was rated at EF-3, with wind estimates of 140 mph (225 kph) to 150 mph (240 kph). It’s the first tornado to be rated that high, according to NOAA records, with wind gusts exceeding those of the largest hurricanes recorded around the city.
A.T. Price, 73, was at his stove making tacos Sunday when his phone started to buzz with severe weather alerts. At first, he pooh-poohed it.
“But it kept buzzing and buzzing. I checked it again and it says, ’Immediate danger. Tornado down,’” Price said. He dove into the closet below his first-floor stairwell, crouching into a fetal position under his winter coats.
“I heard the freight-train sound, and it sounded like it was going right over the house,” Price said. “I would tell people to heed those alerts.”
Virginia Beach Director of Emergency Management David Topczynski said Monday that the city got lucky because the storm blew in Sunday during a music festival, where an emergency operation center was already set up, allowing for a swift response.
The tornado caused an estimated $15 million in residential damage, with nine homes destroyed, the city said in a Monday afternoon news release. Another 36 homes sustained major damage that made them unlivable, while “many more” had significant damage, the city said.
This story has been corrected to show that at least 100 buildings in Virginia Beach were reported to be damaged, not destroyed.