CHERITON — Two people were killed and 36 injured when a tornado ripped through a popular campground in Northampton County Thursday morning, bringing down trees and overturning RVs and campers.
The storm swept into Cherrystone Family Camping and RV Resort and the Cheriton community about 8:30 a.m. Lord Balatbat and his wife, Lolibeth Ortega, a husband and wife from Jersey City, N.J., were killed when a tree fell on their tent. Both were 38 years old. Their 13-year-old son was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, according to Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. He was one of three children taken to Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk.
One person was flown to the VCU Medical Center in Richmond, 31 were transported to Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, and one was taken to Norfolk Sentara General Hospital. The conditions of those injured were not immediately available, though Geller said their injuries were mostly minor.
Northampton County sheriff's deputies and state police troopers checked each camper and cabin individually after the storm, and all 1,328 campers registered at the campground and the 40 staff members have been accounted for, Geller said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Lyle Alexander confirmed that the storm was an EF1 tornado, and officials said straight line winds also caused damage in the area.
The tornado, with winds between 80 and 100 miles per hour, began in Chesapeake Bay and moved east to the campground and then to Cherrystone Road before lifting near Seaside Road close to the Northampton landfill, according to a report from the National Weather Service.
Witnesses said the storm swept in very quickly with strong winds and hail nearly the size of tennis balls.
Gina Meyer and her family arrived at Cherrystone Campground on Wednesday evening from Baltimore. They rode out the storm in their camper.
“The hail started and it was just so loud, we threw the kids under the kitchen table (of our camper) and threw the mattress on top of it,” Meyer said.
As the storm let up, the family scrambled to their car to find a more stable structure.
Meyer said as the family ran through the hail, she saw a 30-foot-long camper flipped on its roof and several other RVs on their sides.
David Thornes, who works with the Cheriton Volunteer Fire Co., said he saw “walking wounded and people being carried out on doors.”
Thornes runs a local charter fishing business and said the hail badly damaged both of his boats. “I may be done for the season,” he said.
The Northampton County Sheriff's Office received the first reports of a funnel cloud at 8:31 a.m. Thursday, Geller said. The tornado entered Cherrystone Campground, snapping trees and knocking over campers.
Brandon Myers from Pasadena, Md., said he joked that “those things never happen” when his wife warned him around 8 a.m. that she'd just gotten a tornado warning alert on her cellphone.
Minutes later, he was kneeling over his wife and daughter to shelter them as the storm tore at their camper.
“The hail was beating down and you could feel (the camper) lifting up a little bit,” he said.
His camper had some minor damage, but Myers said he saw some on the way out of the campground that had been split in half by fallen trees.
Geller said the tornado reached Route 13 and abruptly changed direction, heading back over the campground and making a V shape. She said when state troopers arrived, they found numerous downed trees and power lines across the roads.
Virginia State Police got a call at 8:48 a.m. about a truck that had overturned on Route 13, right near the campground.
“The driver said the next thing he knew he saw the funnel cloud, it hit his truck and knocked it on its side,” Geller said. He sustained only minor injuries, she said.
Geller said most of the damage from the storm was confined to the campground. Many split trees and a few cracked windshields were visible near the front of the campground, where officials held a news conference. But just up the street, on Wilkins Drive, several houses sustained damage from falling trees and hail larger than golf balls.
State police and sheriff's deputies evacuated the campground after the storm. Many campers were staying in an emergency shelter set up at Northampton County High School, but some staked out spots in front of the campground, drinking beer and eating pizza while waiting to retrieve their boats and trailers.
Around midday, campers were being let back into the campground a few at a time to collect their belongings.
Most campers and other members of the public were barred from entering the campground while crews continued the cleanup Thursday afternoon.
State police and local first responders were expected to remain on the scene overnight.
Brian Moran, the state director of public safety, said Gov. Terry McAuliffe would visit the campground Friday to thank the emergency responders for their work and to offer his sympathies to those affected.
Murphy can be reached by phone at 757-247-4760. Staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this story.