We would camp at Camp Powhatan, located in the mountains of Virginia. Close communities include Draper, Pulaski, and Dublin. To get to camp, one must drive out into BFE, crisscrossing a stream via low-water bridges and traversing an old gravel road. The path seems to go on forever, before you finally pass through the camp entrance. You really are out in the middle of nowhere.
Friday evening, my family prepared to drive into camp to meet up with a few other families who were part of our "advance crew." We would set up camp before nightfall so that there would be less rush before the Pack arrived Saturday morning. This is typical of any camping event that I plan; we always go early to make sure we are ready for the group.
We stopped in Dublin, VA on the way to drop Katie off with Nana, who would be taking care of her all weekend. We also got gas. While we were at the station, I noticed that the sky seemed to be clouding up a little, but thought that the rain might hold off for awhile. At 7:30 PM, we arrived in camp.
As we pulled in to our campsite, with another family on our tail, the volunteer Campmaster arrived. Figuring it was a social greeting, I walked up to say hello. That's when I heard the words that I have feared ever since the devastation at a Scout Camp in Iowa in 2007. "Don't unpack," he told us. "There's a tornado warning for four counties." The warning included Pulaski County, our current location.
We were ushered up to the Dining Hall, a cavernous building at the center of camp. I had never realized just how the unsubstantial the building seemed until we had to use it as a makeshift shelter. The building serves its purpose well as a dining hall, but I sure didn't feel secure on Friday night. There are a few walls that separate the kitchen area from the dining area, screen windows, and two Big Ass Fans. If I remember correctly, it is a steel building on a concrete foundation. However, it was our best bet to get out of the incoming storm. Many other buildings were locked for the season or too far away to reach within a short amount of time.
As we entered the main dining area, the lights began to flicker, and then went out. We had only the two emergency lights to rely on, as nobody had taken the time to grab a flashlight from their vehicles. Let me tell you... an ominous feeling fills the air when the power goes out as a bad ass storm approaches. I felt as if I was in the middle of a bad horror movie. The air was still, but we could hear the thunder and see the flashes of lightning. The sky was slowly turning a strange color of green. "Well, at least it isn't raining," I cheerfully observed. Then, the downpour began.
Rain pounded the metal roof and the trees violently swayed in the wind. If a tree fell across the road, we were told, we wouldn't be able to get out until someone came in to cut it down. Brilliant news! If the water rose and crossed the bridges, we also wouldn't be able to get out until it went down. How fabulous! The storm kicked up another notch. Looking through the windows, it appeared as if we were floating in a pot of green soup. All visibility was gone. No one could hear anyone else over the roar of the storm above us.
Our two families sat against the innermost wall as the storm passed overhead. My husband, brave fellow, walked around the dining hall, observing the sights through the various windows and peeking through the door. Later, he claimed that he saw a "strange trail of smoke" coming from the top of one of the surrounding mountains.
As the worst of the storm let up, another one of our leaders came in the back door. He had been out in the midst of it, trying to reach camp with his son. Not long after he arrived, another wave of wind and water came through.
We decided that we would spend the night in the Dining Hall. The rest of the night was no less eventful. My husband and I drove to Dublin to pick up the last few supplies we needed for the Scouts. While there, we learned that tornadoes had touched down in nearby Pulaski. Upon returning to camp, we learned that we had a fourth Pack leader on the reservation, but we had no clue where he was. There are three camp grounds within the confines of the Blue Ridge Scout Reservation and, we assumed, he could be at any of the three. After alerting the Campmasters and the Ranger, we ultimately located him in a tent in the area in which we were supposed to camp, but it was a harrowing thought that he and his son may have met danger.
Soon after, we learned that there was a strong possibility that the stream would be over the bridges the next morning and that we would be stuck in camp. At that point, my husband and I decided to throw in the towel and leave. If the bridges were to be flooded, our campers would not be able to get to camp, nor would we be able to leave. Additionally, we had no idea as to the safety of our daughter and John's mother, who were traveling through the worst of the storm. It was time to go.
The other three leaders opted to stay the night, justifying the decision by the idea that it was better to stay put if you were safe, than to venture out into the woods. More storms moved through the area that evening, but none so bad as the first. They all arrived home safely Saturday afternoon.
To the Campmasters who were watching for us to arrive, I am grateful. Though the Dining Hall would have been blown to bits had a tornado hit, we were safer there than anywhere else. We were also very fortunate that we were not struck by a tornado. If you take a look at the map below, Hiwassee is located directly to the southeast of Draper, in the line of the two tornadoes that touched down in Pulaski and Draper, rated EF-2 and EF-1, respectively. God was looking out for us that night and, for that, I am humbled.
Friday evening, there were more than 400 residences destroyed in Pulaski County, and 50 others were damaged. Clean-up is in progress and there are many families who have lost everything. This was the worst tornado-producing storm to strike Virginia in seven years.
John's mom and Katie were fine. While they were driving on I-81, they would have passed exit 92, where the tornado crossed the interstate, about ten minutes before the storm got really bad.
View tornado damage here.
Roanoke Times story covering damage caused by Pulaski tornadoes.