Wicked weather

Published 12:29 am Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ominous-looking clouds rolled through the area on Friday, prompting the National Weather Service to issue three separate tornado warnings and most schools to launch tornado drills.

At 10:59 a.m. Friday, the National Weather Service in Wakefield issued a tornado warning for south central Southampton County, and for western Hertford County and northeastern Northampton County, N.C.

The tornado warning, which expired at 11:45 a.m., was issued after local law enforcement spotted a tornado 13 miles south of Murfreesboro, N.C., near the town of Aulander, N.C. The tornado was reported moving north, toward Virginia, at 25 mph.

By noon, the weather service reported that a severe thunderstorm, capable of producing a tornado, was on Doppler radar near Newsoms. The storm was headed north at 24 mph. Five minutes later, a second tornado warning went into effect for Franklin, southwestern Isle of Wight County and eastern Southampton County. The warning expired at 12:45 p.m.

A third tornado warning was issued at 1:59 p.m. for eastern Prince George, northwestern Surry, and northeastern Sussex counties, but was cancelled at 2:34 p.m. after the storm weakened.

Jessica Gibbs, a 17-year-old senior at Southampton Academy in Courtland, said there were two tornado drills at the school Friday — the first was during second period at about 11:30 a.m., and the second about an hour later, during third period.

“I was in my yearbook class,” Gibbs said. “We were in a doublewide trailer. Our teacher came in and told us the weather was bad. Then the intercom came on and told us to go into our tornado drill.”

Gibbs said she and other students went into the building and waited in a classroom. After a half-hour had passed, “the intercom came back on and told us to go back to class,” Gibbs said.

But about 30 minutes later, the school initiated a second tornado drill.

“I was meeting with my guidance counselor,” Gibbs said. “The second drill started and I went to the ‘Bat Cave,’” a room inside the school with brick walls and no windows. “I got 10 text messages from people — some of them said ‘Aaaah! You’re gonna die!’ One of my friends was hiding under the librarian’s desk, crying.”

Gibbs said she and other students in the “Bat Cave” could hear the rain and the wind whipping outside, but nothing else. About 15-20 minutes later, the second tornado drill was over.

“The courtyard was flooded,” Gibbs said. “There was about a foot of water in there.”

Mercer Neale, the school’s headmaster, confirmed that there were two tornado drills. “The kids were great,” he said. “They were very cooperative.”

Charles Turner, the superintendent of Southampton County’s schools, said that all of the schools in the district also had tornado drills on Friday.

In Isle of Wight County, one school, Windsor Middle, went into a full tornado drill at about 12:15 p.m., according to Katherine Goff, the county school district’s public information officer. Three other schools in the district — Carrsville Elementary, Windsor Elementary, and Windsor High School —monitored the weather situation closely.

“They kept in contact with the county’s emergency services,” said Goff. “Everyone was in place and ready to put a (tornado) drill into place. They made sure all of the kids were in the building. The high school held buses until the warning was lifted.”

Isle of Wight Academy also conducted a tornado drill Friday, from 12:10 to 12:50 p.m., according to the school’s headmaster, Ben Vaughan.

The students “executed the plan very well,” said Vaughan. “We were pleased with the way it went today.”

The Childen’s Center in Franklin also held a tornado drill, taking kids there to a safe area of the building until the warning expired.

Franklin City Schools were prepared to do a tornado drill, if needed, too.

“We had all of our schools on alert,” said Rick Clemons, assistant superintendent. “Students in the modulars at Joseph P. King Middle School and S.P. Morton Elementary were moved into the buildings. We were in constant contact with building level administrators.”

Chuck Penn, a spokesman with Dominion Power, said that there were no reports of downed power lines or people without electric service in Southampton or Isle of Wight counties, or in Franklin.