Dangers remain for Virginians digging debris

April 30, 2008 8:50:40 AM PDT
Residents gathered at a local school Wednesday, carrying black garbage bags and backpacks as they waited to be taken to their tornado-ravaged neighborhoods to gather necessities from their homes. Officials said they would be given just 10 minutes at their homes.

Worried state officials had said earlier they didn't know if residents would encounter new dangers including damaged power lines and natural gas mains.

"These guys don't know what's under the debris, but that's the way it is in these situations: We like to do these things ourselves," state emergency management spokesman Bob Spieldenner said Tuesday.

Police listed condemned homes that homeowners wouldn't be allowed to go into Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the day after tornadoes struck the region, firefighters poked through mounds of rubble sometimes 6 to 8 feet high to make sure no one lay beneath them, and utility crews worked around the clock to make sure electricity and gas lines presented no danger.

In disasters like these, Spieldenner said, the aftermath can bring as much danger as the storm itself.

"That's the way it was with Hurricane Isabel," in 2003, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman said, referring to the last major natural calamity to hit Suffolk, a city of 80,000 west of Norfolk.

"There were more people injured in the cleanup after Isabel than in the storm itself. We had people die of carbon monoxide (from running generators indoors), falling off roofs, falling out of trees," he said.

Some residents got their first look at the destruction Tuesday, including Tom Becker, who rushed home from a vacation in Atlantic City, N.J., and found his house barely standing.

"I just want to get in there and get the things that are important to me," he said. "I know now that it's gone."

At least 25 debris cleanup volunteers sanctioned by Operation Blessing - a Virginia Beach-based charity funded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson - were expected to arrive Wednesday, said the Rev. Tony Peak, pastor of Suffolk's nondenominational Open Door Church.

State and local officials were still far from a final estimate of the damages from the Suffolk twister - the worst of six the National Weather Service says hit Virginia. Losses from the lesser storms are already at least $3.5 million, Spieldenner said. In Suffolk, the destruction could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Kaine said he was not yet certain that the damage qualifies for a presidential disaster declaration, a designation that qualifies a region for low-interest federal loans to help homeowners rebuild.

"We've got to survey the needs and see what can be done," Kaine said during a walking tour of a neighborhood of houses local authorities had condemned.

"I'm going to let my guys who do this for a living tell me what the answer to that is, and it usually takes a day or two," Kaine said.

Other hazards await from scam artists who flock to disaster sites. Con artists pose as officials or "disaster workers," advertise job opportunities that seem too good to be true, and take money for home repairs they never perform.

Skepticism is healthy for disaster victims, said J. Tucker Martin, press secretary to Attorney General Bob McDonnell. "Use common sense, and research the contractors and companies before spending any money," Martin said.

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