SUFFOLK, Va. - It was a scene of haphazard destruction that stretched for 40 kilometres: Row upon row of homes reduced to sprays of splintered lumber, shopping centres stripped to bare metal, parking lots turned into junk yards.

And yet no one died. "The only thing I can say is we were watched over and blessed," fire Chief Mark Outlaw said.

As shaken residents and rescuers returned Tuesday to survey what's left, they were amazed by both the scope of the damage and their good fortune. Even among the 200 people who were injured, most suffered only cuts and scrapes.

Authorities said people in the tornado's path had plenty of warning and were fortunate that the twister struck in the late afternoon, rather than at night, when most residents would have been sleeping.

The extra few minutes provided enough time for people in the storm's path to huddle in bathrooms or crouch in the back of stores as the strongest of six twisters zigzagged for 40 kilometres across central and southeast Virginia.

Gov. Timothy Kaine, who declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas, said about 145 homes were severely damaged in Suffolk, a city of 80,000 people west of Norfolk. Most of the injured had been released from hospitals.

"It is kind of amazing there weren't more significant injuries," Kaine said on WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. "You are talking about 145 homes; that is probably five to six hundred people directly affected by this tornado."

At least a dozen people remained hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.

The tornado that hit Suffolk touched down repeatedly between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Monday, when many people were still at work or on their way home.

Brenda Williams, 43, had been getting a manicure at a nail shop in the strip when the lights went out and she saw debris flying in the wind around the parking lot. She rushed to the back of the shop for safety, but the ceiling collapsed, burying her.

She wasn't sure how long she was trapped.

She prayed, then hollered when she heard footsteps. A stranger pulled her out.

"I'm not lucky, I'm blessed," said Williams, who had a five-centimetre gash stitched above her left eyebrow and stitches on her right forearm. "I'm fine. I'm here. I'm in the land of the living."

On Tuesday, she went to a shopping centre to retrieve possessions from her car, which was flipped on its roof in the parking lot. Other cars and SUVs were strewn about, some stacked on top of others.

The high winds had tossed two smashed cars inside the shopping centre, which had been stripped of its facing, leaving its steel skeleton exposed. Wiring and bits of insulation hung from metal beams. Shattered glass covered the carpeting, which was soaked from the heavy rains. A lone black hiking boot lay in a parking spot.

Inside a military recruiting centre at the strip mall, a phone remained in place on a desk, its cord ripped out of a wall that no longer exists.

Naomi Britt, who cares for an 87-year-old woman, was at the woman's home in a Suffolk subdivision when she heard what she thought was an 18-wheeler.

"I grabbed her by the hand and said, 'Let's go,' " said Britt, 60.

She led the woman into a bathroom just as the lights failed.

"I got down as far as I could and we just held hands and prayed," she said.

After the roar had quieted and the house had stopped quaking, Britt opened the door to find rubble around her. Nothing remained of a neighbour's house but a cinderblock foundation.

"If we hadn't been in that tub, we could have been sucked out of that attic and out of that roof, and we'd be gone," said Britt, who was at the nondenominational Open Door Church, where out-of-state relief workers were being fed and sheltered.

The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes also hit Brunswick County, about 100 kilometres west, and Colonial Heights, about 100 kilometres northwest. Three other twisters hit in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, and along the line separating Gloucester and Mathews counties, all in southeastern Virginia. The other tornadoes caused far less damage than the twister that ravaged Suffolk.

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