By Nancy Lindsey
A tornado roared through the Ararat community in western Patrick County around 12:30 p.m. Feb. 24, causing devastation to buildings and trees but fortunately, no deaths or injuries.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in Patrick County before,” said Steve Allen, county emergency management coordinator, as he surveyed the damage and community members came to help the tornado victims.
Allen said there was damage to 21 homes and a church, including one house and a mobile home that were destroyed by the funnel cloud. The second story of one house was blown away, leaving the first floor standing.
The first thought of many observers was gratitude that Blue Ridge Elementary School, located about one-tenth of a mile from the edge of the tornado, was not struck by the twister’s fury.
Sheriff Dan Smith issued a news release Wednesday night describing the situation. The dispatch center began to get calls about high winds, fallen trees and damaged houses before 1 p.m., and multiple volunteers responded to the area on Ararat Highway between Squirrel Spur Road and Raven Rock Road, Smith said.
“Several homes and other structures were damaged, but, amazingly, no one was injured,” Smith said. “Sadly, some residents have been displaced from their homes due to the extensive damage.”
Smith said that as of 7 p.m., numerous utility crews, emergency medical services workers, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Appalachian Power Co. and American Red Cross representatives were still on the scene, along with Allen.
Officials at first thought the damage was probably caused by straight-line winds, but Allen said there were signs of a twister and he contacted the National Weather Service.
The meteorologists determined that an EF1 tornado hit Ararat, based on the nature of the damage to structures and trees. An EF1 tornado is considered a “moderate” tornado, with wind speeds ranging from 86 mph to 110 mph, Allen said.
Allen said the tornado was apparently traveling below the radar and was not picked up by the radar used by the National Weather Service.
The tornado touched down on Epperson Lane, expanded to about half a mile wide and was on the ground for about two minutes as it crossed Ararat Highway (Rt. 773) and then went 1.7 miles before ending, Allen said.
As it carved a path of destruction, the tornado crossed Pond Road and an old farm road, knocking a mobile home off its foundation, Allen said.
Four people had to be evacuated and were assisted with housing by the American Red Cross, Allen said.
Overall, Allen told the Patrick County Board of Supervisors Monday night, one house on Ararat Highway and one mobile home on a farm road were considered totaled. Twelve structures were listed as “affected,” while five had minor damage and three had major damage. Some cars were also damaged, and hundreds of trees were destroyed, either sheared off at the top or uprooted.
The Ararat Pentecostal Holiness Church, which became a headquarters for officials and community members, experienced damage to its side, roof and sign.
Large tarps were spread over houses with roof damage to prevent further damage in case it rained.
Members of the National Guard were on hand to help with traffic control and other problems. The Patrick County Sheriff’s Office “maintained a strong presence” in the area to prevent looting, Smith said.
The extent of the damage to agriculture, including barns, outbuildings, livestock and woodlands, was not known Monday, Allen said.
Allen said the total damage for both agriculture and homes was only $385,000, because it had to be based on tax assessments, which were generally lower than replacement value. Some of the homes were worth more than those assessments, he said.
Congressman Morgan Griffith was instrumental in “cutting through the red tape” and getting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal representatives on the scene, Allen said.
FEMA is expected to help rehabilitate some of the damaged homes, he added.
On a “community clean-up day” Saturday, residents and their many helpers had to deal with the problem of getting rid of debris spread over the tornado’s route, Allen said. There was talk of burying it or burning it, but that “would have been major trouble,” he said. People said they couldn’t take it to the transfer station in Stuart because it closed at noon on Saturday, but Allen made some calls and got the employees to keep the station open until everything was transferred.
Allen thanked Rural Services, Jamie’s Recycling, and McCraw Trucking from Cana for bringing dumpsters and helping move the debris, as well as numerous businesses and individuals who brought food and water to the volunteers doing the work.
Dan River District Supervisor Roger Hayden, board chairman, told Allen he did “an outstanding job in coordinating the effort to help those in need in the Ararat section.”
“It was a great job in a bad situation,” said Blue Ridge District Supervisor Karl Weiss
A “gofundme” account has been set up to raise funds for the Ararat tornado home loss victims. Those wishing to donate can visit any branch of Carter Bank and Trust and ask to donate to that account.
All checks must be written to: Ararat Tornado Home Loss Victims. The list of Carter Bank and Trust locations can be found at http:/www.carterbankandtrust.com/info/office-locations.cfm.
Donations may also be made to the “gofundme” account. The link is www.gofundme.com/prr4qq32.