Time flies by more quickly with every change of the calendar. I suppose that’s how 15 years have flown by since the remnants of Hurricane Ivan fostered a tornado outbreak in northern Virginia on September 17 2004. Back then my chase gear consisted of a very early digital camera (2 MP!), a weather radio, and paper maps. Oh, and NO mobile data.
After reviewing the data we had access to and extrapolating from radar trends we – my son, his then-fiance (now wife) and I – motored northwest in a two car convoy up U.S. Route 17 from our home in the Fredericksburg area. Cruising the back roads of Fauquier county we finally found a spot from which we witnessed the storm approaching from the south:
Continuing on those rural roads we found an open farm field from which we called in a tornado report based on our view of the storm base, large wall cloud, and the top half of a persistent and robust funnel. (A distant tree-line obscured our view of the ground.) NWS Sterling issued a tornado warning on that storm shortly thereafter. That tornado was later rated an F3 per their damage survey.
Continuing northwest on Rte 17 we turned north on U.S. Route 29 toward Warrenton. After we diverted onto more back roads we wound up just behind the tornado, driving through parts of the damage path just as law enforcement officials were closing the side roads. We finally came out again on Rte 29 northeast of town and stopped on the shoulder with this view of the tornado less than 400 yards away:
Despite – again! – not having a clear view of the ground to tell whether the circulation was on the ground we realized it was still a tornado when we re-entered the damage path not far north of our roadside vantage point.
Given that it was a Friday afternoon and the traffic streaming out of the DC area was rising to epic proportions we turned east on a side road, stopping literally in the damage path as the parent storm bulldozed northward. We did watch a couple other storms and saw another funnel that afternoon but we’d already encountered the strongest tornado of the outbreak.