- Violent tornadoes in the United States mostly occur in the states between the Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges due to the favorable atmospheric conditions that make the central U.S. so volatile to severe weather. However, strong and even violent tornadoes have and can occur in states well outside this region, one of them being the state of Virginia. This post discusses and analyzes the only two F4 tornadoes recorded so far in Virginia’s weather history: the 1993 Petersburg-Colonial Heights tornado and the 2001 Culpeper County tornado.
Petersburg - Colonial Heights - August 6, 1993
- On August 6, 1993, the largest tornado outbreak in Virginia’s history took place as 18 tornadoes touched down across Virginia, one which was a violent F4 tornado that struck historical downtown Petersburg and Colonial Heights. The tornado touched down directly over Petersburg and moved northeast. The tornado grew to width of 300 yards and intensified as it struck several old, brick buildings in the historical district of the city. Most of the damage was rated F2 with smaller concentrated areas of F4 damage were observed, revealing the tornado had a multi-vortex structure.
- The F4 damage was comprised of multiple well-constructed mutli-story brick buildings with thick walls being leveled, one of which had a restaurant on the first floor where 30 people were in the building when the storm struck, miraculously, all of them survived. Then the tornado struck an old train station where a large section of the building was completely leveled, a nearby caboose that was anchored to a short piece of rail was ripped up and tossed 20 feet away in the opposite direction of the tornado (NWS).
- The tornado then caused F3 damage on Pocahontas Island, destroying many wooden homes and a 200-year-old church, an open bible that was left on the podium was left untouched. The tornado then crossed the Appomattox River and I-95 and then struck a shopping district in the Colonial Heights area. Many stores suffered substantial damage with a Wal-Mart being the worst hit. The tornado was dubbed to be “was as wide as the Wal-Mart was long” and a strong suction-vortex carved a 20-yard path though the store like a hot knife cutting through butter. Around 500 cars were moved or tossed in the nearby parking lot. Three people were killed and 198 others were injured in the Wal-Mart.
- The tornado continued to cause significant damage when it crossed the Appomattox River again into Prince Charles County and struck a sand and gravel company building where another person was killed. Several vehicles were overturned and conveyor belts were overturned and bent. The tornado continued into residential areas in Hopewell and caused F1 damage to roofs and trees before dissipating in Charles City County.
- The tornado caused $47.5 million in damages, making it possibly the costliest tornado in state history as it traveled 12 miles for roughly 15 to 20 minutes. Four people were killed and 208 others were injured. While this was a significant event, the worst of the damage surveyed in Petersburg would have most likely received an EF3 rating today due to lack of supporting damage in the area.
Culpeper County - Septemeber 24, 2001
- On September 24, 2001, nearly two weeks after the September 11 attacks that affected Washington D.C., a small but significant tornado outbreak took place across the area, one of the tornadoes was an F3 multi-vortex tornado struck the D.C. suburbs. However, a much stronger tornado caused damage over rural Culpeper County in northwestern Virginia.
- The tornado touched down over the small town of Rixeyville at 3:03 p.m. EST where it blew a tree onto a home on Route 640 and began moving northeast. After traveling for two miles, the tornado rapidly intensified as it approached Indian Fork road and descended onto a two-story brick house with a walkout basement, almost completely leveling the then unoccupied home. A local resident who observed the tornado said the home “exploded” as the tornado “dropped onto it”. Debris such as bricks and wood planks were impaled into the ground, a car in the garage was crushed, and appliances were tossed across the yard. This damage was rated low-end F4 with estimated winds of 210 mph (Storm Events Database).
- The tornado continued northeast and caused F2 damage at a trailer park in Jeffersonton where multiple trailers were severely damaged along with four churches in town. A few more homes northeast of town were also damaged before the tornado crossed the Rappahannock River into Fauquier County and damaged a barn at F1 strength. The tornado lifted at 3:25 p.m. EST after crossing Route 211, ending a 10-mile-long path (24, 2001 Tornadoes.htm NWS).