Region reflects on deadly ’93 tornado during 25th anniversary

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 17, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – If you find a random person on the street and ask them where they were and what they were doing on August 6, 1993, most would be hard-pressed to give you a clear and direct answer of their action that day. 

If you ask that same question to most people who were living in the Tri-Cities and Southside Virginia on August 6, 1993, you might get answers that would imply the day had just passed as the memories of the deadly tornado that tore a path of destruction through the region still remains fresh in the minds of many of the area residents 25 years after one of the most active days for tornadoes in the Commonwealth’s history.

The day started relatively quiet across the southern reaches of Virginia, as weather records show temperatures were hovering in the mid-70s under partly cloudy skies, but an unassuming warm front moved through Richmond and Henrico and a low-pressure system moved in, the clouds disappeared and brought intense warming throughout the day, providing the fuel needed for a unprecedented weather event that was to unfold in only a few short hours.

Roughly an hour after the storm system produced its first tornado touchdown in the town of Kenbridge in Lunenburg County, which strengthened to an EF-2 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning it was capable of producing winds of over 130 miles per hour, the most devastating tornado of the outbreak touched down and left an indelible mark on Petersburg and the entire Tri-Cities that remains until this day.

At 1:30 p.m., the tornado found its way to Old Towne Petersburg, known for its stunning red-brick structures that captured the essences of a time gone by. In a matter of seconds, roads like Grove Avenue and Sycamore Street were littered with those same iconic bricks alongside wooden structures from roofs that were torn from buildings like twigs from a tree. 

The historic train station in Petersburg was left in ruins by the 1993 tornado as other buildings show their scars from the destructive storm. 25 years later, much of the building hasn’t been repaired. (National Weather Service)

Entire buildings were destroyed, some never to be built again by the EF-4 tornado, leaving openings between some of the city’s historic buildings, voids that haven’t been filled after two-and-a-half decades after being essentially erased by winds estimated anywhere between 166 to 200 miles per hour. Others, like the train station, only saw partial rebuilds as much of the structure is now teeming with weeds and overgrowth without a roof, which was blown off by the tornado.

As people in Petersburg rushed to help one another, the tornado continued to leave destruction in its wake as it moved through the Tri-Cities, leveling the Pocahontas Island neighborhood as weather officials said the twister heavily damaged or destroyed “over 80 percent of homes” in that community as it moved along the Appomattox River toward Colonial Heights. 

From there, some of the most tragic and iconic imagery of the August 1993 tornado was created by the deadly tornado as it set its sights on the then-growing Southpark Mall shopping complex. 

Even though the tornado, according to meteorologists, had decreased in size slightly, it remained a power EF-3 storm, capable of winds up to 165 miles per hour. It wasn’t long before the tornado severely damaged several businesses, including the K-Mart store that formerly anchored the Southgate Square shopping center along with a nearby strip mall before it would approach Southpark Boulevard and strike the Walmart store, packed with shoppers on an early Friday afternoon. 

The account from the National Weather Service as they recounted the tornado spoke to the destruction seen at the store as an entire swath of the building was demolished: “The tornado was as wide as the Walmart was long.”

The chilling image of the Colonial Heights Walmart store with an massive section carved out of the building from the 1993 tornado is etched in the minds of thousands who lived through the Tri-Cities tornado. Three people died inside the store and over 150 were injured. (Clement Britt/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Three women, aged 40, 48, and 56, were killed inside the Walmart store. Their names – Carolyn Gunn, Cheryl Weisheim, and Mae Prosise – are forever memorialized on Walmart’s new store, built only a few football fields away from their former home, which now houses a Sam’s Club, sharing the same footprint as the old Walmart store.

That same tornado would make its way into Prince George, weakening further to an EF-2 before striking a sand and gravel company, where the building collapsed at the facility, claiming the life of a 28-year old employee, bring the death toll to four.

At that time, Prince George County’s Donald Hunter, who serves as a supervisor on the county board and a key member of the county’s emergency management team, was a lieutenant at the Prince George Police Department and he remembered August 6, 1993, vividly as he reflected on the anniversary.

“We heard the storm was coming as we had warnings, but at first appearance, it seemed to have affected Petersburg and Colonial Heights than us and we were sending units left and right to assist them,” Hunter shared.

This simple memorial plaque is affixed to the outside pillar of the new Walmart store at Colonial Heights where the store moved after the 1993 tornado, honoring three of the tornado’s victims who perished inside the store. (Michael Campbell)

“Of course, we were getting phone calls from out of the Puddledock area and all over,” he continued, referring to the Puddledock Road corridor that rests just outside out Colonial Heights in Prince George County linked by Temple Avenue.

“Allen Foster was the dispatcher at the time and, during that time, the dispatch center was right near our offices in the police department and he said, ‘I could use some help in here,’ because the phones were ringing and he was talking on the phone and on the radio as well, trying to send fire and EMS units to calls.”

That’s when Hunter joined in to help with the influx of emergency calls during the afternoon from the deadly system which, by this time had injured roughly nearly 250 people and killed three across the Tri-Cities and Prince George County.

“Detective Robert Lee and I both went in and assisted on dispatch with calls, and all this was happening right at shift change time,” Hunter said. “Us, along with the other dispatcher Dottie Brewer were all in there taking calls, and talking to citizens and trying to get coverage for the county.”

25 years later, while portions of the station building in Petersburg have been restored, one portion that was hardest hit was never repaired and is now covered in weeds and overgrowth. (Michael Campbell)

“Of course, the biggest impact was Petersburg, and then in Colonial Heights at the Walmart,” he said, reflecting on his own interactions with someone he knew who was trying to get in touch with a person inside the store at the time of the tornado.

“I had a parent call me because their daughter was in the Walmart and they were asking me what they should do,” Hunter recalled. “I told them they have to stay away from there, but thankfully their daughter was fine. She was right in the store but she wasn’t injured, other than mentally. She was there shopping for college and when she saw the tornado, she just left the basket and ran back into the store.”

Since 1993, many things have changed across the region, much of Old Town Petersburg has been rebuilt, the Walmart store that became synonymous with the sheer destructive power of the tornado was torn down and moved to a new location nearby and Sam’s Club took its place, Southgate Square reopened and continues to host a variety of businesses, and economic growth continues in and around the areas impacted by the tornado. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is the close bond the Tri-Cities and Southside Virginia share with one another, something that was evident during the response to the 1993 tornado.

“You want to give every measure of assistance to your mutual aid partners,” Hunter said. “We all work together really well, but we also work hard to maintain our presence in the county as well.”

“They, of course, would send people to us if we needed them and, being the small community that we are, us, Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie, Sussex, Surry, Charles City, we all depend on one another to make sure we have the equipment and personnel to cover an issue when we have it so we have great working relationships with all those agencies.”

Two-and-a-half decades later, the Southpark Mall area has transformed, in the midst of a commercial boom. Even after moving the former Walmart store a few football fields away, Walmart maintained its presence at the site where their old store was destroyed, tearing it down and building a Sam’s Club in its place. (Michael Campbell)

As the 25th-anniversary passes and the community continues to move on from the deadly tornado outbreak, its memory in both the minds of those who lived through it, young and old and in Virginia meteorological history isn’t lost to time. The tornado outbreak is still referred across the region and its final statistics still take the breath away of those hear the final toll: 256 injuries, four deaths, and a total damage cost of $52.5 million.

“Rarely has such an outbreak of tornadoes been seen in these areas and never so many at one time,” weather officials said of the nearly 20 tornadoes that occurred on that one day. “Let this day serve as a reminder that devastating tornadoes can occur in any month of the year at any time of the day and at any location in the country.”

For more about the tornado outbreak of August 6, 1993, visit the National Weather Service Wakefield Office’s website at http://weather.gov/akq/severe_Aug061993.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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