NEWS- Surviving Suffolk: Tornado obliterates UVA grads' home
In spring 2006, Emily and Brian Thiede thrilled to watch their first house being built in a Suffolk subdivision. The couple– 2004 UVA grads– were married on May 13 that year, and the following week moved into their house, ready to begin married life in the brand new three-bedroom colonial.
But on Monday, April 28, less than two years after they moved in, the joy of home ownership turned to horror for the Thiedes as their house was flattened by the devastating tornado that ripped through their neighborhood, leaving a trail of rubble.
"This is the sort of thing I don't think anyone believes really happens until you see it with your own eyes," says Emily Thiede (formerly Emily Bean), who was running errands after leaving her job as a second grade teacher when she heard radio reports of threatening weather in the area.
Concerned– but only, she says, about likely traffic delays– Thiede stopped to pick up a snack at Starbucks when her cell phone rang. It was Brian.
"He said, 'Prepare yourself,'" Thiede recalls.
Brian Thiede had headed home at 5pm from his job as an engineer for Northrup Grumman, about 30 minutes after the tornado struck, to find emergency vehicles heading into his neighborhood. He was not allowed to enter, but a neighbor leaving the area gave him the shocking news: "Your house is totally gone."
Jerry Stenger, research coordinator for the State Climatology Office headquartered in Charlottesville, says the Suffolk tornado was one of 10 to touch down in Virginia that day. The other nine, scattered across the southeastern portion of the state, were relatively weak– ranked EF0 or EF1 on a scale that tops out at EF5. The Suffolk tornado ranked an EF3– with winds of up to 160mph– making it one of only 23 such powerful tornados to touch down in Virginia over the past 58 years.
According to the National Weather Service, the tornado– which destroyed dozens of houses along a 10-mile path and injured 200 people but, amazingly, killed none– was active between 4:05pm and 4:40pm, and traveled forward at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. Tornados, Stenger says, are "unpredictable" and can change direction, strength, size and speed. Such was the case with the Suffolk storm, which at its largest was approximately one-quarter mile wide. By the time it hit the Thiedes' house– "roaring like a freight train," according to numerous witness accounts– it was considerably narrower and spared the houses on either side.
Emily Thiede considers that "miraculous," especially since in both of those houses children were at home.
Although the Thiedes were not home– a fact that may well have saved their lives– their house was not empty. Their two cats, Calvin and Hobbes, were inside, and Thiede says she and Brian worried far more about the fate of their animals than their material possessions.
Two days after the tornado, as the charity Operation Blessing used excavation equipment to pick through the rubble, there was no sign of their cats, dead or alive. But on Thursday afternoon, Thiede says, she got the first piece of good news. Hobbes was found, unharmed, in a neighbor's garage.
Settling into an apartment on Friday, May 2, Thiede was philosophical about the loss of her possessions. "Your things are replaceable, but living things aren't," she said. And while she was delighted to discover that her wedding album was one of the items that survived the tornado, she would gladly trade it to find that her second cat had survived.
"I can live and move on without any remorse if we get Calvin back," she says. "I don't think I would have anticipated meaning that as much as I do."
Fortunately, as it turns out, Thiede will be able to live without any remorse.
On Monday, May 5, Calvin was captured– unharmed– in an SPCA trap. He has since been reunited with the Thiedes.