Tuesday marks 20th anniversary of SE VA tornado outbreak

Posted at 8:22 PM, Aug 04, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-04 23:27:54-04

On August 6, 1993, an outbreak of 18 tornadoes struck southeastern Virginia.  The strongest one in the state impacted Petersburg, and was rated an F-4 on the tornado intensity scale.

The Fujita tornado intensity scale ranges from zero to five.  This scale has since been modified to the “EF” (enhanced Fujita scale), but the ratings are somewhat similar.

This was the biggest tornado outbreak in Virginia history up to that point.  It was surpassed on September 17, 2004, when 40 tornadoes hit the state with the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.

The tornado moved from Petersburg to Colonial Heights, striking a store, killing three and injuring 198 people.  As the tornado moved into Prince George county, it caused one additional death.

In 1993, doppler radar was not as advanced as it is today.  Also, the National Weather Service (NWS) was in the process of upgrading older radars to a newer technology.  One of these newer radars existed in Sterling, Virginia, at the time.  However, the NWS did not yet have one of these more advanced radars closer to our area.   The installation of the NWS Wakefield doppler radar occurred after this event.

The NWS in Sterling, Virginia, released a comprehensive report on the tornado outbreak.  Here are portions of that report (damage amounts are listed in dollars, based on 1993 prices):

Lunenburg-Nottoway-Dinwiddie-Chesterfield tornado

First touch-down of the day occurred near the town of Kenbridge in Lunenburg County at 12:43 pm. Roofs were blown off a briquet plant and a furniture company.  The tornado moved northeast into Nottoway County. Estimated damage to Luneburg County was 300,000 dollars. The tornado began as an F-0 on the Fujita damage scale with a path width 100 yards.

In Nottoway County the tornado strengthened to an F-1 where it leveled a barn, trees and some outbuildings on Route 46 near the west edge of Fort Pickett Military Reservation. A house along Route 46 also sustained some damage. Total damages in Nottoway County were estimated at 100,000 dollars. The tornado width was 100-150 yards.

The tornado crossed into Dinwiddie County on the Fort Pickett Military Reservation where it did minimal damage. The tornado crossed route 643 near the northeast corner of Fort Pickett and continued northeast across rural land to the town of Ford. By this point it had strengthened to an F-2. It struck a well-constructed house on route 622 in the town of Ford at 1:12 pm. The second level of the house was sheared off along with some of the wall. Near the house, a wooden shed, telephone poles, and large trees were leveled. The tornado tracked northeast to near the Chesterfield County line. It lifted near route 611 and 623. Average width was 150-175 yards. Total damage was 320,500 dollars.

About 5 miles to the northeast in Chesterfield County, the tornado again touched down with damage along Route 628, 634 and 692 for about 3.5 miles. The damage is rated F-0. Total path length through the 4 counties was about 38 miles. Total damages are estimated at 720,500 dollars. Total life time of the tornado on the ground was about 40 minutes.

Petersburg-Colonial Heights-Hopewell-Prince George tornado

photo of the Petersburg tornado

The most devastating tornado of the day touched down in the independent city of Petersburg at approximately 1:30 pm. This tornado rapidly grew in size and strength as it
moved two miles northeast into the commercial historic district of Petersburg. Here, damage showed a path width of 300 yards. Much of this damage was of an F-2 magnitude, however, within this path were smaller paths (about 30 yards wide) of more concentrated F-4 damage (winds estimated near 210 mph). Because of this pattern, the tornado has been designated an F-4 “multi-vortex tornado”. The vortex of a large tornado can sometimes break down into smaller tornadoes which rotate around a central core.

Amazingly, no one was killed in Petersburg. Old Towne Petersburg had withstood Union troop barrages in 1864-65 during the Civil War. Most of the buildings date back to the mid 1800s. A fire in 1815 destroyed the original Old Towne which was established in the 17th century. The train station that was demolished was the oldest standing train station in Virginia. Fifty-eight buildings were badly damaged or destroyed.

The end unit of a row of three-story brick buildings was completely demolished so that all that remained was a portion of the first level back and side walls. This was a well-constructed building with the brick walls at least three bricks thick. In another row of two- and three-story attached buildings, a middle unit was demolished. This was also a three-story brick building. About three feet of the first level front wall remained and most of the first level back wall remained. The rest was gone along with the attached sidewalls of the adjacent units second and third levels. In the first floor was a restaurant. Thirty people were in this building, yet no one was killed.

About 100 feet or so to the right of the restaurant was the historic train station which was completely collapsed. This was a one or two story brick structure that had a large spanning roof making it more susceptible than the other units mentioned to being destroyed. A couple units to the left of the restaurant was a unit that had a solid brick wall with no windows. The wall was four bricks thick. A large hole about 2 to 3 feet in diameter had been punched through the wall. This was likely caused by an airborne missile generated by the tornado, perhaps a beam from the roof. Behind this building was another row of buildings. A collapsed wall was observed to have been made of cinder blocks with steel reinforcement rods and a layer of bricks on the outside. F-4 tornado winds were determined based on the construction, design and damage to the above mentioned buildings. Also of interest was a caboose located behind a building near the train station. The caboose had been anchored into ground and setting on a short piece on rail. The tornado moved the caboose about 20 feet off the track ripping the anchors from the ground. The caboose was moved in an opposite direction to the path of the tornado.

From Old Towne, the tornado moved across to the historic black neighborhood of Pocahontas Island at about 1:35 pm. Here it destroyed or heavily damaged 47 of the 57 homes on the island. Most of these homes were wood-framed houses. A 200 year old church was totally destroyed. However, a bible, open on a podium, was untouched. Damage was rated at an F-3 with a path width of 250 yards. Total damage to Petersburg and Pocahontas Island was estimated at 1.5 million dollars. Forty people were injured and over 100 buildings heavily damaged or destroyed, but there were no deaths.

From Pocahontas Island, the tornado crossed the river entering Colonial Heights and crossing Interstate 95 to the Southpark shopping area. Amazingly, no vehicles where struck on this normally very busy highway. Here, it went on to damage several large stores including a K-Mart, a waterbed store, a strip mall (Southgate Square) and then the Wal-Mart. Windows were blown out, some walls and roofs collapsed at the stores. Some remaining walls were splattered and pitted with debris. The tornado had narrowed to about 200 yards wide by this point (as described by eyewitnesses) and was weakening, but it still retained its multi-vortex characteristics when it struck the WaI-Mart.  The tornado was as wide as the Wal-Mart was long. It moved across the length of the store. A small vortex within the tornado struck the front of the store to the right of the main entrance area slicing a 20 yard wide path through the cinder-block wall and store roof. (This was from a vector direction of 230 degrees converging into the main path of the tornado). The vortex gives the storm a rating at the lower end of an F-3 with winds up to 175 mph. Damage outside the small vortex was F-2. Three people were killed near the store front and another 198 injured. The deaths were to three women, 40, 48 and 56 years of age. In the parking lot between the Wal-Mart and Southgate Square, 500 cars were removed, all with windows blown out and many completely totalled having been tossed about and flipped over. Of the 185 people brought to area hospitals from Petersburg and Colonial Heights, only 23 had to be admitted. This is considered a typical percentage for disasters. Total damage in Colonial Heights was estimated at 29.5 million dollars.

Form the Wal-Mart, the tornado crossed the Appomattox River again, this time entering Prince George County. About a mile from the Wal-Mart at about 1:40 pm, it struck Tarmac Virginia, Inc., a sand and gravel pit company located on Puddledock Road. The second floor of the cinder block building collapsed. Several employees had seeked cover there. One 28 year old man was crushed and killed between the cinder blocks and a large electrical panel that fell. Several cars and trucks were overturned. Large conveyor belts were twisted and overturned. One employee spotted the tornado and radioed a warning to others which likely saved some lives. Three employees evacuated a small shed just before it was totally destroyed.

The tornado path width was 125 yards. It was a strong F-2 with winds estimated near 150 mph. Damage at the Tarmac site was estimated at three-quarters of a million dollars. The remaining damage across Prince George County was primarily to trees. The tornado crossed Interstate 295 damaging a tall brick barrier wall and headed for the independent city of Hopewell. Here it sliced through the northern section. Hardest hit was the Riverside Park Apartment Complex were it took off several roofs. The tornado caused minor damage to an additional 49 homes, major damage to 13 homes and destroyed two. It struck Hopewell around 1:45 pm. The tornado was rated an F-1 with a width of 75 to 100 yards. Damages were estimated at 2.2 million dollars. Eight people were injured.  The tornado weakened to an F-0 as it crossed Route 10 near the bridge and moved out over the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. It dissipated before entering Charles City County. Total path length through three independent cities and one county was about 12 miles. Total damages were estimated at 47.5 million dollars. Total life time of the tornado on the ground was 15 to 20 minutes.

Chesterfield-Henrico-New Kent tornado

Within close proximity time- and distance-wise to the Petersburg tornado, another tornado touched down to the north in Chesterfield County. This tornado formed from the same storm that produced the Dinwiddie County tornado. The tornado touched down and crossed Route 10 moving northeast into the Rivers Bend subdivision at about 1:40 pm. It produced widespread tree damage and only minor roof and window damage to the new  well-constructed homes in the neighborhood. The tornado was rated an F-1 with a width of about 200 yards (most concentrated area of damage). The damage path to trees was actually about a half mile wide and it is estimated that the entire meso-cyclone (low pressure center of a thunderstorm complex) was on the ground. Strong inflow into the storm caused minor tree damage as wide as a mile across.

The tornado moved from Rivers Bend to strike the Varina-Enon Bridge on lnterstate-295. The tornado sucked up water from the James River and was described as a rotating wall of water striking the bridge. It knocked over two tractor-trailer trucks on the bridge and flipped over two smaller trucks. Another tractor-trailer truck then collided with the first two. Five people were injured. The tornado weakened to an F-0 as it moved northeast across Henrico County causing tree damage. The storm’s path width had narrowed to 75 to 100 yards. It finally dissipated in New Kent County in the vicinity of Route 60 and 640. Total path length was about 14 miles. No damage estimates were obtained for this tornado.

Charles City-New Kent tornado

About 8 miles northeast of the Petersburg tornado track, another tornado touched down. This was likely produced by the same thunderstorm. Credible sources indicated material from the Wal-Mart could be found in the southwest portion of Charles City County (some 15 miles from the store). In Charles City County, along Route 650 and 609, tree damage begins. The time was estimated between 2:00 and 2:05 pm.  The tornado broadsided a mobile home rolling it on its side and destroying it. The home had been anchored at all four corners. The anchors were set three feet into the ground. The tornado continued across Cool Hill Road. Another anchored mobile home was rolled three times and completely demolished. The remaining damage to Charles City County was trees. Estimated damages were 115,000 dollars.

The tornado moved into New Kent County, crossed over highway 60 and dissipated. Damage to New Kent was to trees. Path width was 50 yards. The total path length was 6.5 miles. It was rated an F-1.

New Kent tornado

Another tornado touched down in New Kent County. It was slightly to the right of the previous tornado and was, again, likely produced by the same storm. Damage began south of  Interstate 64 and just west of Route 628. This was a wooded area.  The tornado tracked north-northeast crossing I-64 at mile marker 217. The tornado track turned a little more to the northeast and then back to the north-northeast as it dissipated in the vicinity of Route 623 a little over a mile east of the New Kent County Court House. The total tornado path length was 4.75 miles. No dollar damage estimate.  Almost all of the damage in the county was to downed trees. Homes in the area did not sustain any wind damage. The path was largely inaccessible by foot and so most of the damage assessment was done by aerial survey by the county emergency services director. The initial touchdown width was 30 yards. At I-64 the tornado had widened to about 150 yards and F-1 intensity. The damage pattern was complicated by additional areas where tree damage widen to nearly half a mile. At first glance, it seemed this could be described by the storm also producing a microburst. However, no other microburst damage was found to have occurred from thunderstorms that
day. Upon viewing pictures of the tree damage more closely, trees were not lain in a straight-line pattern, but in a broader cyclonic pattern. Therefore, it is theorized that again the whole mesocyclone (rotating core of the thunderstorm complex) briefly touched down.

Sussex tornado

At 2:27 pm, a State Trooper sighted a tornado northwest of the town of Sussex. Trees were knocked down. At about 2:32 pm a tornado was sighted near the town of Waverly. The tornado crossed Route 40 just south of the town and moved east-northeast through a residential section. Most of the damage was to trees. Numerous pine trees were broken off at rooftop level. Some hardwoods were blown over with their roots exposed. A couple of houses had chimneys knocked off. One home had a small branch driven into its siding. All trees were blown to the left of the path of the storm indicating tornadic circulation. It crossed U.S. Route 460 and destroyed a peanut warehouse. The peanut warehouse was a metal building without much in the way of supports.

The tornado was classified as an F-1 when it moved through Waverly. The length of the damage path through Waverly was about 4 miles. The total path length from the State Trooper sighting through Waverly was 14 miles, but much of this area is remote and it is uncertain how much of the time the tornado was on the ground. The path width through Waverly was 100 yards. No damage estimates were obtained.

Surry – tornado # 1

A tornado touched down near the intersection of Route 601 and 614 in the southwest part of the county. It was likely the same storm that struck Waverly. The tornado moved to the northeast across Route 615. The track was about 2.5 miles long and 150 yards wide. Numerous trees were broken off about 15 feet up. A chimney was knocked off a two-story house. Metal roofing was torn off a shed and outbuildings were damaged. Near Route 615, two houses and two cars were damaged and several trees uprooted. Tornado began as an F-0 and possibly reached the low end of an F-1 near Route 615.

Surry – tornado # 2

The storm produced another tornado and struck near the town of Surry. An apartment building on Route 626 west of Surry was damaged. The roof over three units was blown off and an in-wall was pulled away from the frame. The tornado moved northeast, causing moderate damage to trees along Route 641 just west of Route 31. Trees were also reported down near Scotland Wharf Ferry Terminal. The tornado was seen around 3:00 pm headed across the James River toward James City County. The tornado was rated an F-1. The path length was about 5 miles. The path width averaged 100 yards. Damage estimates for Surry County (from both tornadoes) were 20,000 dollars.

James City-York tornado

Fishermen spotted the tornado moving along the banks of the James River and onto land at approximately 2:50 pm. The tornado destroyed a recreation building owned by the employees on the BASF corporation grounds. Debris was scattered through the woods. A bathhouse was completely gone. Pine trees were snapped off.  The tornado moved into a trailer park at Blow Flats Road. Five mobile homes were rolled over. It continued into Innovative Marine Products where a storage trailer was thrown into a large metal manufacturing building which was flattened. It then moved across U.S. Highway 60 taking down many trees which blocked the interstate for hours. The tornado was rated at the high end of an F-1.  The tornado moved into York County and onto the southern section of the
Naval Weapons Station entering a housing area. Many trees were down damaging the
recreation center and a corner of a housing unit. Here the tornado was rated an F-0.
HAM radio reported through the SKYWARN Network that a funnel spotted near the
Naval Station and Yorktown at 3:07 pm.  Total tornado path length was about 7 to 8 miles. Path width narrowed from 150 yards as the tornado came off the river to 75 yards near the end of its trail.   Damages to James City County were about 750,000 dollars. No dollar estimate of damages were provided by the Naval Weapons Station.

Middlesex tornado

At around 3:00 pm a tornado moved through an area near Stormont.  Trees were snapped off near the landfill.  A barn was damaged along Route 629 and a travel trailer was blown over. The tornado moved across Route 673 between Christ Church School and Locust Hill. Estimated damage in Middlesex was 34,000 dollars. The tornado was rated an F-0 with a path length of about 3 miles and a width of 100 yards.

Lancaster tornado

At 3:15 pm, a tornado moved into White Stone from the Rappahonnock River down Beach Road for about a mile. Residents saw the swirling debris. Trees were broken off and homes were damaged from the fallen trees. Estimated damage was 55,000 dollars and the tornado was classified an F-0. The width of the damage path was 100 yards and it was on the ground for at least a mile. The tornado was from the same storm that hit Middlesex County and it may have been the same tornado.  Several vehicles were blown off the road into the ditch near Ottoman but there was no other damage reported in that area nor tornadoes sighted. It was therefore credited to strong thunderstorm winds.  Ottoman is located to the north of both this path and that of the Middlesex tornado.

Tornadoes also struck Suffolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, Isle of Wight, and Southampton.

Totals for August 6 Outbreak:

  • 18 Tornadoes
  • 4 Deaths
  • 256 Injuries
  • 52.5 Million Dollars Damage