Tornadoes struck Pulaski, Draper eight years ago this week

Ever since mankind was escorted out of the Garden of Eden, natural disasters have been part of the human experience.  But in our little corner of the world, citizens of Pulaski County had not been exposed to devastating tornadoes … until eight years ago on April 8, 2011 when two tornadoes wreaked havoc in Pulaski and Draper.

The home of Dana and Terry Bishop was totally destroyed that evening by the tornado.  When people approached Dana asking her “What do you think of God now?” she would quickly respond, “Don’t blame God.  God got us through this – He didn’t do this!”

Normally, the Bishops would have been home eating dinner at the time the tornado hit, but Dana had gotten a phone call earlier in the day from Highland Memory Gardens informing her that the headstone for her mother’s grave had been put in place.  Dana wanted to see it before it got dark, so she and Terry drove from Draper to the cemetery in Radford.  While in Radford, they decided not to go home and cook, but stop at a restaurant for dinner.

Terry jokes, “We stopped at Long John Silver’s where we fellowshipped and the Good Lord fed us fish!” referring to stories from the New Testament where Jesus miraculously provided food for his followers.

While there, they heard sirens, saw fire trucks and ambulances whiz past, but didn’t know what had happened; until a phone call informed them that their house had been hit by a tornado.

“When we got home, everything was destroyed and there was nothing left.  It was like a bomb had gone off.  There were state troopers in the driveway who said they were about to start a search and rescue at our house.  We had ten minutes to gather pets and personal possessions.  Our worst fear was that the next board we overturned we would find little Paco (Chihuahua puppy) killed under the rubble.”

For all you dog lovers, little 6-month old Paco was found the next day across the street; but he had a broken hip and surgery would be expensive.  The Radford Animal Hospital set up a fund for Paco and raised $3,000 for his care.

The first few days, the Bishops said they were in shock and didn’t know what to do. Their insurance company assessed the damage and covered everything.  According to Terry, “We dealt with a good insurance company and didn’t have to fight with them over a settlement.  We give God the credit and glory for the way everything turned out.”

Dana said everybody was so generous.  To her amazement, one neighbor approached her and handed her $500 saying, “use this to get a hotel room and for anything else you need.”

The Bishops said their Heritage Church family was extremely generous.  They held a dinner to raise money and many volunteers came to help with the clean up.   People in Draper helped with cleaning up.  When they found clothing and salvageable items, they washed them and returned them to the Bishops.  Someone with a bull dozer cleared their property and another church member with a seeding company let them use a trailer for storage; then came back months later and graded and seeded their yard.

“We knew the Lord would take care of us and we put every detail in His hands.  He got us through and we are better off now.”  The Bishops offer one suggestion for home owners:  review your insurance policies and upgrade them every few years so you are not under-insured … just in case you need it some day.

There are similar stories of how the community came together to help each other; and as the former Mayor of the Town of Pulaski and APCO employee, Jeff Worrell can recall many instances.

“I still think about this experience every day as I drive around the town. I’ll see something that reminds me of that incredible day.  It changed my life and I’ll never forget it.  When it (tornado) first happened my immediate concern was for the safety of the people.  It was a miracle that no one was killed,” states Worrell.

Worrell was amazed by the instantaneous response of the numerous volunteers – most from faith-based organizations.  “The morning after the tornado, I was out working with my crew and heard the sound of chainsaws and hammers.  It was most heartwarming to see everyone pitching in together, helping each other out.”

Worrell’s next concern was how the town would get resources to fix all the damage.  “This had never happened here before, and it happened without warning.  Days and weeks later, I got really concerned because the damage was so massive and we didn’t have the resources to fix it.”

Amazingly, according to Worrell, donations were sent from every state in the country and accumulated over $1 million dollars.  Although incredibly grateful, Worrell was concerned that if they hired professional contractors the money would be used up before all the damage could be repaired.  “We never qualified for Federal Assistance because fortunately there were no fatalities and the damage level didn’t rise to their level.  We were absolutely on our own.”

The Pulaski Tornado Relief Fund was created and managed by fiscal offices in Pulaski County.  There were so many uninsured homes in Pulaski and the funds helped the owners to repair or rebuild.

Worrell believes one of the lessons learned through this experience is “that the human spirit is overwhelming in what they will do to help each other.  The volunteers were here to help. Some stayed for weeks, some for months.  One middle school student in Blacksburg held a bake sale and raised money.  It was truly a touching moment when she personally came and presented her donation to us.”

Dave Quesenberry, Clerk of Pulaski Town Council, left his office at 6:45 that evening.   Stepping out of the building, he noticed the air was unusually warm and humid … almost sultry.  As the sky was fading blue to green, he recalled that was a sure sign of tornado activity – but tornadoes don’t happen here in Pulaski, he reasoned.

Upon arriving at home in Dublin, he barely got inside before high winds, rain and hail pelted his roof.  Because he unplugged his computer and TV, he didn’t hear about the tornado until 9 p.m.

The next day, while traveling with an assessment team he saw a church steeple lying on the ground on Fayette Street; and when they got to Valley Road, it looked like a war zone.  Quesenberry recalls that Maple Street was ground zero for the tornado where many houses were destroyed, but a 101-year-old resident’s home received only superficial damage.

It has been reported that 1,367 people in Pulaski County and 340 people in Draper were impacted by the tornado’s damage.  For a small community, that entails a lot of logistical coordination.

The National Weather Service later determined the storm that hit Pulaski was an EF-2 tornado, while Draper’s was labeled an EF-1 on the Fujita scale which rates tornadoes on the basis of wind speed and intensity – from EF-0 to EF-5. An EF-2 storm has winds of between 113-157 mph, while an EF-1 has winds of between 73-112 mph.

According to the Town of Pulaski’s current Mayor, David Clark, the Town Council and some town employees were organized into groups and assigned projects.  Clark, who was recuperating from surgery, went out with his crew as first responders the morning after the tornado and helped assess the damages.

Clark says he was amazed about the recovery process.  “Every police force in the county and our state police helped designate and manage dangerous areas.  Local churches made sure people had a place to stay, take a shower, and get fed.  Volunteer organizations like God’s Pit Crew, the American Red Cross, and so many other organizations were on the site within 24-hours providing meals for the volunteers and disaster first responders.  God’s Pit Crew brought a tractor-trailer with shower units and parked it beside the Nazarene Church so people could get fresh water and have a hot shower.  Church groups from all over the country sent volunteers.  There were so many needs:  repair, remove and rebuild, but the response time was phenomenal.”

One of the most important aspects of the recovery process was managing and coordinating the funds for the recovery.  Worrell credits Janet Jonas, who was one of the volunteers, as doing a fantastic job of coordinating resources and finances.

“It was amazing to watch as people worked together.  If anything good comes of this moment in Pulaski’s history it is the resilience of the people in our community and how they came together to take care of each other.  One of the things I say about this town is that the people here are great. Even people who didn’t know each other got to know each other through volunteering and helping.  There were people helping others, even though their property was damaged.  Everybody was watching out for everyone else.”

How many communities can make the following statement after a disaster and long-term restoration project?  According to Joseph Goodman’s Facebook page:  “The volunteer response to the tornadoes that struck Pulaski County has been tremendous.  The outpouring of offers from residents near and far to volunteer their time to help our community is sincerely appreciated.  At this time, however, we are maxed out with volunteer opportunities.  Interested volunteers should continue to watch news coverage, the Pulaski County blog, or the Town of Pulaski’s Facebook page for any additional volunteer opportunities, as the clean-up and restoration efforts will be a long-term commitment.

Pulaski County is … truly a great place to live!

By DANIELLE REID, The Patriot

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