Only one other tornado outbreak in Virginia’s history caused more injuries than this Monday’s, although several others have been more prolific and deadly, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
More than 200 people were injured when six twisters slammed southeastern Virginia, causing widespread property damage but no deaths. Suffolk and Colonial Heights were hit the hardest.
The storms are being compared to the August 1993 tornadoes that followed a similar path, striking in a busy retail area just south of Richmond and heading southeast. However, there were 18 tornadoes during four hours on that day 15 years ago, and four people were killed and a record 259 injured.
The deadliest day for tornadoes in Virginia occurred in May 1929, when 22 people — more than half of them school children — were killed and more than 150 injured in western Virginia. The most prolific day was in September 2004, when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan spawned 40 twisters.
“It’s not unusual at all,” National Weather Service forecast Rick Curry said of Monday’s severe weather. “The major difference now is that it hit a couple of populated areas.”
The 1993 tornadoes were the costliest on record, causing $47.5 million in property damage. Most of the damage was in Petersburg and Colonial Heights, where a Wal-Mart store was ripped apart. Bob Spieldenner, state emergency management spokesman, said Monday’s storms caused about $3.5 million in damages in Colonial Heights and Isle of Wight, Brunswick and James City counties. Suffolk’s total “is going to be much larger” but has not yet been calculated, he said.
Curry said the weather service ranked the Brunswick and Colonial Heights tornadoes as EF1, the second-weakest on the six-step Enhanced Fujita Scale of tornado wind and damage. An EF1 packs winds of 86 mph to 110 mph. The 1993 Petersburg/Colonial Heights tornado was a powerful EF4, with winds approaching 200 mph.
The Suffolk tornado was an EF3, with sustained winds of about 160 mph, according to Bill Sammler of the weather service.
Walker Ashley, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who has conducted extensive research on killer tornadoes, echoed the observations of countless others who have seen Monday’s devastation either in person or in news reports: “It really is a miracle nobody was killed.”
He said had the tornadoes hit at 2 a.m. when people were sleeping, or even a couple of hours later in the afternoon during rush-hour traffic, there almost certainly would have been fatalities and more injuries. It helped that some people either heard the weather service warnings or saw the funnel clouds approaching and scurried for cover, Ashley said.
Curry said Brunswick County and Suffolk had a few minutes warning, but “we were a little behind the ball on Colonial Heights.” The warning there was issued only after an off-duty weather service employee who was shopping in the area spotted the funnel cloud and called in, leaving scant time for people to take shelter.
Ashley said the weather service has greatly improved its warning system in recent years, but the public often does not take the warnings seriously enough. He said if there’s a lesson to be learned from Monday’s tornadoes, it’s that even states outside the Midwest-to-South “tornado alley” can be hit by powerful twisters, and warnings should be heeded.
“The first line of defense is to go purchase a weather radio,” Ashley said. A weather radio can sit silently until it receives a signal from the weather service, then broadcast the warning loud enough to awaken its slumbering owner.
Ashley’s research also has concluded that tornadoes that strike regions where a lot of people live in mobile homes tend to have higher death tolls. The neighborhoods that took the bulk of Monday’s punishment are dominated by traditional houses.
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