Recap of yesterday’s storm chase and tragic events across the South

By now you’ve probably seen the stories, pictures, and video from the Gulf Coast states, where one of the worst tornado outbreaks since the Super Outbreak of 1974 has devastated countless communities, some being wiped clean off the map according to some officials. Alabama and Mississippi were ground-zero for the outbreak, where it appears several violent, long track tornadoes ripped across the two states, striking several large towns and cities along the way. Tuscaloosa, AL appears to have been the hardest hit, where the city’s mayor says much of the city services operation centers have been completely destroyed, including the city’s entire fleet of garbage trucks. Reports even came in from Birmingham, which is almsot 50 miles to the East-Northeast of Tuscaloosa and was hit by the same tornado, that debris from Tuscaloosa was falling from the sky there. Damage surveys are ongoing across the two states, with the NWS Birmingham saying it will take several days before the assessment in Tuscaloosa is finished (An updated list of storm survey statuses can be found here). There’s little doubt in my mind that some of these tornadoes will be ranked EF-5 when all is said in done. One of the biggest questions to be answered by the surveys will be the the longevity of the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. The supercell itself lasted over 300 miles, starting in Mississippi, crossing Alabama and Georgia, and finally dissipating in western North Carolina. Storm surveys will soon tell us whether the damage from this storm was produced by a single, long track tornado, or a family of tornadoes. Should it be determined that it was a single tornado, it will be the longest recorded tornado in history.

NWS Birmingham Map

Map from the NWS Birmingham of preliminary tornado tracks as indicated by how the Supercells tracked on radar in their County Warning Area

Virginia also saw its share of severe weather from this system. Numerous tornado reports came in from all corners of the state yesterday… from the Washington DC metro area, down to Richmond, the Shenandoah Valley, and unfortunately, two fatal tornadoes, one in Halifax county where one fatality was reported, the other in Washington county in the town of Glade Springs, where initially 7 fatalities were reported, but he number was later reduced to 4.  Many of the Hokie Storm Chasers were up late last night watching this storm and discussing it as the path had it coming close to Blacksburg.

Here in Central Virginia, I made a spur of the moment decision to head out to Goochland County to intercept two tornado warned storms as they moved north out of Powhatan County. The storms were line up back to back and I intercepted the first one as it moved into the county, roughly following the US 522 corridor. The storm had a fairly impressive wall cloud, but that was about it.

Wall Cloud on the first storm as it moved north across Goochland County toward Hanover County

While I watched this storm move away, I was approached by a local who showed me a picture he took of the storm with what appeared to be a slender, rope-looking funnel cloud. I made the decision to stay where I was and wait for the 2nd storm, for two reason. First, the first storm was looking less impressive on radar. The 2nd storm was also clear of anything south of it to potentially cut off its flow, which I felt like was hurting the first storm. My second reason was I had one of the best vantage points around. Being next to the State Prison Farm, there weren’t many trees around to block my view, and also being on a bluff above the James River gave an even better view. This decision paid off as the base of the 2nd storm soon came into view, and I was greeted by a large, low wall cloud.

Looking south into Powhatan as the 2nd storm approached, a very large and low-hanging wall cloud can just barely be seen here

It wasn’t long before the storm was a lot closer and more visible, and suddenly a tornado dropped out of the wall cloud.

Tornado on the ground in Powhatan

A brief tornado touches down across the river in Powhatan county. It was on the ground for maybe 2-3 minutes before lifting. It appeared to go multi-vortex very briefly before it did lift.

After taking this picture, I called the tornado into 911, as up to this point, there was no spotter confirmation of a tornado on the storm. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this storm was its structure. It looked like a Low Precipitation, or “LP” Supercell that one would normally see in the western high plains, and not in central Virginia.

Base of the storm, looking very much like a classic LP Supercell

The storm continued to the north, where the wall cloud began to get reorganized.

Low-hanging wall cloud on the storm as it moved to the north. You can also notice some striations in the clouds up above.

Right before I left my location here to relocate on the storm, inflow winds into the storm really began to crank, which indicated to me the storm was ramping up and possibly getting ready to produce another tornado. I turned onto some back roads to make my way up to Oilville. As I navigated the windy roads in the woods, I couldn’t see the storm very well. I did finally reach one point where I came into an open field, and right in front of me a mile or two away was a tornado

Oilville Tornado

Stovepipe looking tornado that was confirmed on the ground near Oilville

After this, I wasn’t able to keep up with the tornadic part of the storm, which is just as well because the lack of daylight evident in the poor quality of the last picture was making it impossible to chase. I did follow it up to the west of Ashland, where I sat on the side of the road for a bit and watched a spectacular lightning show as it continued to move away to the northeast.

It wasn’t until I returned home that I learned about the scale of devastation that had happened across Alabama and Mississippi. My heart sank to my stomach when I saw some of the pictures out of Tuscaloosa… buildings reduced to nothing, trees snapped in half and stripped of their bark. I believe Kevin Myatt posted something on one of our Facebook discussions about the storms around 5:30 pm that we were witnessing something truly historic unfolding right before our eyes on radar, and he hit it right on the head. While all the signs where there even the day before that yesterday was going to be a busy day with many tornadoes, I don’t think anyone predicted just how bad it was going to be. I think I speak for all those involved with the Hokie Storm Chasers when I say my heart goes out to all who lost family, friends, loved ones, homes, and businesses across the South from yesterday’s tragic events.

Andrew Smith

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7 responses to “Recap of yesterday’s storm chase and tragic events across the South

  1. Great writeup Andrew! Good pix as well…we may have to join forces on a Virginia chase in the near future.

  2. Great post Andrew and good pics. I am anxious to see whether the Tuscaloosa supercell had multiple strong tornadoes or a devastating long track one.

  3. Some of the stories coming out of Tuscaloosa are amazing. I have a lot of ties to University of Alabama, and a friend of mine a few weeks ago argued to have his thesis defense moved up so that he could take a job. He won and his defense was moved up, which is good because he was supposed to defend this week, and his apartment complex is gone.

  4. Great chase report. I missed the first tornado but caught the second tornado near Oilville. My video is on youtube Username “danaus” What an amazing day. Did you all get video?

  5. I think the most stunning photo Andrew got was the one labeled “Base of the storm, looking very much like a classic LP Supercell.” To see that kind of storm structure over Virginia is jaw-dropping. Typically our supercells are murkier high-precipitation jobs and our tornadoes are rain-wrapped. With this entire outbreak, it was notable how many fully visible funnels/wedges there were, since tornadoes in the South are often amorphous blobs hidden in cloaks of rain. In any event, Andrew has had an incredible season tracking Eastern tornadoes, with 4 to his credit this month in Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks for sharing your efforts freely with us.

  6. Thanks everyone. Chris, we definitely need to team up around central VA. Wednesday was pretty spur of the moment, I didn’t even leave the house until the first tornado warning had been issued.

    The LP nature of this storm was indeed incredible. I couldn’t believe I was seeing it. Bill Hark got a real good capture of the LP-nature of the storm in his video, which I’ve seen pop up a lot on the national news networks.

  7. Pingback: Bill hark | Algebratesting

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