BELLEVILLE - Gov. Joe Manchin visited the storm-damaged area of Belleville in southern Wood County Friday afternoon on the day after a tornado moved through the area, causing extensive damage and one fatality.
The storm caused the cancellation of the 25-year-old Belleville Homecoming Festival, which had been scheduled for this weekend at the Belleville Community Center near the path of the tornado.
On Friday evening, the National Weather Service in Charleston had completed its assessments and confirmed a tornado struck Belleville in Wood County and Palestine in Wirt County.
"The power of this storm was just unbelievable," Manchin said during a visit Friday afternoon to the command post set up by Wood County officials at the community center at the intersection of West Virginia 68 and Robin Hood Road.
Manchin flew to the site early Friday afternoon with Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The governor met and talked briefly with residents from the Belleville area and emergency and cleanup crews working in the area affected by the storm.
Manchin said he and Gianato flew over the damaged areas on both sides of the Ohio River while coming to Belleville and planned to check the areas again while leaving.
Photo by Wayne Towner
Gov. Joe Manchin visits Belleville Friday afternoon in the aftermath of a Thursday evening tornado that struck in Ohio and West Virginia, moving across country and damaging areas from Belleville to Palestine to Burning Springs. Additional photos available at cu.newsandsentinel.com
"We're very sorry, our hearts go out and our prayers go out to the person who lost his life and his family," he said.
Manchin said state officials, including Gianato, are expected to bring in representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency today to continue damage assessments as part of the process to determine if a disaster declaration is needed and whether it will be state or federal or both.
"We're here to support the first responders," Manchin said Friday. "What we do as a state is we come in and make sure they have all of the assets they need and all of the support they need to make sure they can help the citizens and the people and the survivors to transition as normally as possible. Then we see what kind of assistance we can give and how we can attain that for them," he said.
"We're going to do all we can to help people get their lives back to normal," Manchin said.
Gianato said state officials will provide whatever support Wood County needs. His agency had people on the ground Friday conducting assessments and gathering information for state officials.
Belleville residents had been expecting a more festive weekend, with the 25th annual Belleville Homecoming Festival scheduled to begin Friday evening and run through Sunday. That event has now been put on hold due to the damage and devastation in the Belleville area.
The site of the festival at the Belleville Community Center escaped serious damage itself, but about six trailers and campers set up on the property in anticipation of the festival were damaged or destroyed by the high winds, in some cases being carried dozens or hundreds of feet.
Debra Buckley, president of the Homecoming Festival Board, said Friday afternoon that organizers had decided to cancel the festival for the weekend.
"There's been a lot of devastation here," she said.
Although the festival organizers will not be able to hold anything this weekend, Buckley anticipates something being done in the next few weeks as a community gathering, as soon as circumstances permit.
"I'm sure we'll probably try to do something later if we don't do anything this weekend," Buckley said Friday afternoon. "We will definitely do something, we will persevere, we will persevere."
John Tennant, of New England Ridge, was inside the community center when the tornado passed through the area. The tornado apparently passed within 100 or 200 yards of the building without damaging it, but a few trailers less than 25 yards from the school were flipped and carried dozens or hundreds of feet by the pressure of the storm.
Tennant is vice president of the Belleville Homecoming Festival Committee and was with six other volunteers working at the center and on the grounds Thursday evening in preparation for Friday afternoon's opening of the three-day festival.
About six trailers and campers had set up on the grounds, with over 20 more planning to come in Friday. All of the trailers on the site were affected or damaged by the wind, ranging from being pushed along the ground to being flipped over to complete destruction. At least two of the trailers were picked up by the wind and carried over Robin Hood Lane for some distance before hitting the ground again, Tennant said.
Tennant said the first indication of problems occurred at dusk as the volunteers working on the grounds saw a lot of lightning in the darkening sky and decided to move inside the center and into the kitchen at the center of the former school building.
"We went inside the safe area in there and the wind really picked up then. It was even going through the cracks of the door and moving the curtains. The sky was pink out here, the whole area was pink. You could hear the roar like a train coming through, it was that loud. It was just like they always say, it was that way," Tennant said.
Tennant said one man was in a pickup truck in the flea market area of the grounds and rode out the tornado inside his truck, escaping without injury.
"I consider us lucky that more people weren't down here," Tennant said.
Christina Smith, of Lee Creek Road, said she remembered hearing the storm approaching.
"It sounded like a train. The wind started and the rain started. We weren't in the middle of it, we weren't directly hit, we were on the outskirts. There was a lot of damage and then the aftermath, having to cut up the trees. It took us about three hours to go an eighth of a mile using chainsaws," she said.