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We are apparently going to get through this month without any tornado reports across Southwest and Southside Virginia, having crossed multiple anniversaries of notable April tornadoes that have struck some heavily populated parts of our region over the past five decades.
Severe storms have been fairly sparse this month, and a cooler-than-normal weather pattern has settled in and will continue into next week. Although April looks likely to end soggy with the southward-dipping jet stream, the persistently cooler air will sap the instability that would be needed for tornado-producing thunderstorms. (See the second section of this column for a discussion of the current weather pattern.)
We can also breathe a sigh of relief that it has been seven years since the last tornado deaths in the Cardinal News coverage area, generally covering the state from the James River south to the North Carolina line and west of Interstate 85, those occurring in the February 2016 Appomattox County tornado.
Before that, the last tornado deaths in our region occurred a dozen years ago Thursday and Friday, on April 27-28, 2011, with five people killed in separate tornadoes affecting different portions of our region. This and other April tornado anniversaries are recalled below.
April 27-28, 2011: Glade Spring and Halifax County
An EF-3 tornado with winds up to 140 mph ripped through Glade Spring amid a 20-mile long path in Washington and Smyth counties shortly after midnight on April 28, part of the 2011 Super Outbreak in which 360 tornadoes touched down in 21 states over four days, 216 on April 27 alone.
The Glade Spring tornado is blamed for four deaths (three directly, one indirectly) and over $78 million in damage, much of it very near to Interstate 81, including at a Petro Truck Stop where tractor-trailers were tossed around like firewood.
Earlier, on the evening of April 27, an EF-2 tornado killed one traveling a path 18 miles long through mostly rural portions of northern and western Halifax County. The tornado paralleled a path of a similar EF-2 that traveled 26 miles out of North Carolina across southeastern Halifax County 11 days earlier, leaving South Boston and Halifax safely in the middle of the two paths.
A total of 19 tornadoes occurred in Virginia on April 27-28, 2011, with two additional tornadoes in Washington County and others affecting mostly rural areas of Grayson, Prince Edward and Botetourt counties within our region. One of the Grayson County tornadoes heavily damaged Grindstone Campground at 3,800 feet elevation, spawned by a thunderstorm that crossed Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at over 5,700 feet, defying frequently repeated myths about how mountains affect tornadoes.
April 4, 1974: Saltville and Roanoke
The first “Super Outbreak” occurred in 1974 – 148 tornadoes confirmed over two days, April 3-4, in a similar Midwest, South and East geographical footprint as its 2011 sequel. The 1974 Super Outbreak likely would have had many more confirmed tornadoes with the intensive storm surveys and Doppler radar available by 2011.
Coincidentally, the first Super Outbreak also produced a killer tornado in Washington County, just eight miles north of Glade Spring, at Saltville, where one person died in a mobile home. Rated F2 in the previous Fujita Scale before it became “Enhanced” in 2007, it stayed on the ground for 8 miles extending into Smyth County.
(The pre-2007 Fujita Scale and the Enhanced Fujita Scale each rate tornadoes from 0 for weakest to 5 for strongest based on observed damage. Virginia has never recorded an F5/EF-5 tornado and the Southwest and Southside areas covered by Cardinal News have never had one greater than F3/EF-3.)
Later on April 4, 1974, near sunrise, an F2 tornado touched down in Salem then tracked across northern parts of Roanoke and eventually to near Bonsack in Botetourt County. While it injured six, heavily damaged two apartment complexes and damaged 120 homes, it’s all the more frightening to consider that a tornado on the same path today would have shredded the heavily developed commercial area around Valley View Mall, which was largely pastures in 1974. Also, even in 1974, the human toll could have been much worse had it arrived at mid-afternoon, instead of daybreak, with student attendance and vehicular traffic to and from the four schools it hit. Unnerving thoughts if there ever is anything resembling a repeat in the Roanoke Valley. (Click here for my 2002 retrospective of the 1974 tornado, reposted in 2014, in The Roanoke Times — my first weather-related article to appear in any Virginia media.)
April 28, 2002: Bedford to Campbell County
This was an atypical outbreak to affect our region, spreading from Missouri, Kansas and Iowa eastward toward the Mid-Atlantic ahead of a cold front, with most of the tornadoes north of our region, including the devastating La Plata, Maryland, F4 tornado. Usually, tornado outbreaks affecting Virginia have more impact to the south and southwest of the state than to the north and northwest.
Two tornadoes wreaked considerable havoc from the then-city of Bedford east-southeastward to just south of Lynchburg. In Bedford, 62 businesses and 25 homes were damaged, plus a church, on a half-mile-long, 100-yard wide F1 track. The same supercell spawned another F2 tornado minutes later from eastern Bedford County to north of Rustburg, destroying over 50 buildings including 22 houses and a church, plus damaging more than 300 other homes. Twelve people were injured.
April 8, 2011: Pulaski
Fuzzy memories outside those directly affected may blur Pulaski’s 2011 tornado into the Super Outbreak that occurred later in the month. But it was a entirely distinct event nearly three weeks prior, and diametrically opposite of the Super Outbreak, the result of a single supercell riding southeastward along a sharp boundary between cool, dry air and warm, moist air, spawning the only two tornado reports in the whole United States that day. The first tornado, rated EF-2 with 125 mph winds, ripped the west and southwest side of Pulaski, damaging 300 homes and injuring eight people. The second tornado damaged two more structures near Interstate 81 just southeast at Draper. This was by far the worst tornado in the history of the New River Valley, but no one died. (Click here for my 10-year retrospective published in 2021 in The Roanoke Times.)
April 15, 2018: Lynchburg, Amherst County, Danville and Craig County
A tornado stayed on the ground for almost 27 miles from just southwest of Lynchburg deep into Amherst County. While there was considerable damage to businesses and homes along its path through the Timberlake area and the western side of Lynchburg, it was the destroyed homes at Elon in Amherst County that gave it an EF-3 rating. Echoing the 2002 tornado that barely missed Lynchburg to the south, 12 people were injured. At least since 1950, this was the first tornado on record within Lynchburg’s city limits and the first EF-3 to hit Amherst County, according to the National Weather Service.
In the same outbreak, a tornado moved on a 17-mile-long path out of North Carolina into the Westover area on the western edge of Danville, de-roofing several homes. Additional tornadoes in the outbreak damaged six homes northeast of New Castle – the only confirmed tornado since 1950 in Craig County — and one home each near Moneta in Bedford County and Rustburg in Campbell County. (National Weather Service outbreak summary linked here.)
April 19, 2019: Franklin County
This tornado only destroyed two houses – just one of them occupied – traveling through rural southern Franklin County, but it was the westernmost EF-3 tornado reported in Virginia since 1950 other than the two Washington County tornadoes discussed earlier. Several drivers were trapped in their vehicles on U.S. 220 as the tornado spun trees down along the route.
Similarities to the atmospheric setups for the 2018 outbreak and the one that produced the February 2016 Appomattox County tornado engendered some discussion about whether longer-track, more destructive tornadoes are increasing in frequency in our region and happening farther west than the Southside and Central Virginia areas that have seen them more often, historically. Although tornadoes have been more typically sporadic in our region in the five years since, it’s a discussion worth returning to sometime.
Tornadoes, of course, happen in other months besides April. But the month’s occasional crossover of late winterlike atmospheric dynamics and early summerlike warmth-induced instability has produced many memorable tornadoes in recent decades across our region, as this list recalls. Let’s be thankful we’re not adding to it this go-round.
Blackberry winter and a soaking rain
A resurgence of colder weather once spring has sprung has often been labeled “blackberry winter” in Appalachian culture, occurring near the time blackberries are starting to bloom. Other terms such as “dogwood winter,” “redbud winter” and “whippoorwill winter” have also been applied.
The current atmospheric pattern is, indeed, exactly what snow fans were hoping for back in our nearly snowless January-February stretch, with high pressure systems near Greenland, the North Pole and the Western U.S. directing the jet stream into a deep dive over the Eastern U.S., allowing colder air to move south from the northern latitudes of Canada.
In midwinter, we’d see 30s highs and teens lows in our region on many days with this kind of pattern. A similar departure below normal in late April gets us to mostly 30s lows (some 20s mostly west of the Blue Ridge, on Monday and Tuesday mornings) and 60s highs on the cloud-free days, moving more toward daylong 40s and 50s on cloudier, rainier days.
The dipping jet stream also will focus some wet low-pressure systems more to the south than we’ve seen most of winter and spring, and that will bring periods of rain intermittently from Thursday to Sunday. (These would indeed be snow and wintry mix flirtations in the same mid-winter setup.)
With the potential for many locations to see 2+ inches of rain total, this could quell any lingering dryness across our region. (Drought has actually worsened in parts of northern and eastern Virginia more so than Southwest and Southside.)
The last system pushing through Sunday will drag through a cold front that will renew the late chill for early next week, with more frosty mornings likely. (Mountain snow showers are not out of the question, either, but those didn’t really develop much with this past weekend’s cold front.)
Like with everything else in weather, this too shall pass. There are already signs of a warmer pattern a week or two deep into May. Blackberry winter will give way to an explosion of blooming mountain laurel.
For the second time in four weeks, the aurora borealis was visible in Virginia on Sunday night, mainly in locations away from city lights and best captured with photography rather than the human eye – but eyes could see some of the color array on the northern horizon at times.
A solar flare followed by a coronal mass ejection were detected Friday by scientists, leading to the display as charged particles interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field on Sunday. Radiant colors were observed over a 12-hour period extending to unusually far south latitudes across Asia, Europe and North America.
There may be more of these displays in the next few years as the sun reaches the peak of its sunspot cycle, a leading space weather forecaster told The Washington Post’s “Capital Weather Gang,” linked here.
Geomagnetic storms have some potential to disrupt radio transmissions and electronics. The 1859 Carrington Event burned up telegraph lines in some locations. Not to give you something else to worry about in a column that started with such good news about tornadoes.
Journalist Kevin Myatt has been writing about weather for 19 years. His weekly column is sponsored by Oakey’s, a family-run, locally-owned funeral home with locations throughout the Roanoke Valley.