Recovery continues after 8 tornadoes hit Virginia a year ago

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WAVERLY — Gregory Stringfield’s chest tightened as he described the phone call from his mother confirming the dead, and the worst moment of his life, which followed.

He put his hand over his heart, willing it to keep beating, as he recalled coming to his sister’s hospital bedside with the news that her toddler son was among the dead, along with their brother, and her boyfriend, all of whom were sent skyward when a tornado ripped through their mobile home off U.S. 460 in Waverly.

“She kept asking us, ‘Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?’ — she wouldn’t let up,” Stringfield said. “I couldn’t [tell her] alone.”

Ian Lewis, 2, Devine Stringfield, 26, and Larry Turner, 50, were directly in the winding path of a tornado with wind speeds up to 110 mph. It snapped trees, halved a house, and sent fences flying along its 9-mile journey.

Eight tornadoes struck Virginia on Feb. 24, 2016, with one person also killed in Appomattox County.

One year later, tarps still cover some roofs in Waverly, a town of about 2,100 dissected by railroad tracks and U.S. 460. Waverly boasts a single stoplight and a McDonald’s; residents trek to Petersburg or Wakefield to buy their groceries.

“It’s amazing that some of these tarps are still up,” said Donald Vann, a contractor who volunteered his company’s services after the storms, as he inspected a row of houses off West Main Street this week.

Gaps where homes once stood stand out like broken teeth. Paul Logan, then 21, was in one of them when the storms hit.

Logan had just returned from a shift at McDonald’s and was sitting in the back of the house when the power cut off. He walked toward the stairs to investigate and heard a noise he’ll never forget.

“There was a curtain over the entrance to the living room and it just got sucked forward, and I saw the front of the house just fly off the frame,” Logan said.

“The entire living room and upstairs room was in the front yard.”

Mayor Walter Mason said Waverly has applied for federal assistance to repair houses of the city’s poor. Many people remain displaced a year later, he said.

“We are so grateful, especially to members of the faith community who are out there actively working still to help us come back from this tragedy,” Mason said.

He was out campaigning for his current job when the skies darkened over Waverly last year, signaling the coming storms. Turner was his second cousin.

“It was just devastating,” Mason said. “Personally, and for the town, where we already have financial problems.”

The disaster compounded the harsh economic realities of a town left behind decades ago, when mills and factories closed across Southside Virginia. Waverly’s median household income is about half the statewide average.

“It’s even more unfortunate that the tornado’s path took it through a part of town where people were less likely to have homeowner’s insurance,” said Vann, the contractor.

He left a project in Florida at 4:30 a.m. the day after the tornado struck and drove straight home. He stopped only to drop off his wife and gather supplies before coming to help.

Vann, his son and company workers stayed over a week.

When offers of paid work flooded in, Vann shrugged them off, unwilling to capitalize on someone’s tragedy.

“I’ve been in a position where I really needed help and people were there for me,” he said. “This time, I got to be there for someone else.”

Logan, like many others, still is rebounding. He moved in with extended family at first but had to move again when their circumstances changed.

After a tough period, Logan has found new roommates and more work and said he feels hopeful that things are moving in the right direction.

Mason holds hope, too — not just for the storm, but for grants and loans the town is pursuing to fix aging infrastructure and boost economic development.

His heart is set on luring a grocery store to replace a Fresh Pride that has been shuttered since 2014.

“We’re coming back. We’re hard-nosed people in Waverly,” he said. “We put our backs into it and we get the job done.”

by K. Burnell Evans, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Thursday, February 23, 2017 9:51 pm

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Kyrie Wagner