Nine years ago today northern Virginia experienced a tornado outbreak created from Hurricane Ivan‘s remnants. That day wound up being the most productive Virginia stormchase I’ve undertaken to date in terms of tornadic activity. The following writeup has been posted online a couple of times but I am including it here as an anniversary post:
The September 2004 Northern Virginia Tornado Outbreak
On Friday September 17ththe remnants of Hurricane Ivan were forecast to invade northern Virginia. The models indicated a significant chance of tornadoes would occur if the general overcast thinned enough to allow the juicy atmosphere to destabilize, so when the sun popped out during early afternoon I invested a couple of hours of vacation time. After checking radar at our house my son, his fiancee, and I bolted for Fauquier county in two separate vehicles to intercept a couple of cells that were steaming northward and strengthening.
Struggling through the traffic on U.S. Route 17 we finally reached the Sumerduck vicinity and promptly dove south onto county roads to inspect a vigorously growing updraft. When the base became visible we gaped at a magnificent mesocyclone structure in the obviously rotating storm. Sans mobile internet capability we frantically perused our trusty paper maps and finally located a nice rural clearing from which to view the awesome storm. Our only frustration was that a treeline prevented us from seeing underneath a vigorously rotating wall cloud and funnel to verify that it was indeed a tornado, but I called in a report to the Sterling National Weather Service office anyway. Shortly thereafter that office issued a tornado warning for this storm a few minutes ahead of the F3 tornado that damaged homes in the Remington area.
Photo by Chris White
In an attempt to keep this monster in view we quickly caravaned back to Route 17 and motored further northwest, approaching Bealeton just as the cell struck Opal four miles in front of us. Since the storm now blocked our progress on the main thoroughfare we diverted east onto side roads and drove into the southern outskirts of Warrenton just behind the beast. Local law enforcement units were closing off side streets even as we maneuvered through an obvious damage path with treelimbs and other debris scattered across the roadbed. We turned north onto U.S. Route 29 amid a stream of slowly moving traffic, and just as we rounded a curve the traffic halted while a tornado writhed no more than 500 yards northeast of us. We both quickly pulled off the road and I furiously snapped pictures before the rain settled in and reduced visibility to zero while the tornado moved off into the distance.
Since the burgeoning weekend traffic was now at the horrendous stage we edged a bit further north and then escaped onto another side road to gather our wits, coming to a halt literally in the tornado’s damage path amid large branches snapped off trees and other debris all around us. The storm we had been chasing was rapidly moving further north into even more ridiculous traffic so we chose to scoot east and sort out the flurry of frantic tornado warnings still emanating from our weather radio. A few miles along this road I pulled off when I noticed a second cell following in the footsteps of the first one, wrapping up and rotating as we drove. While observing this new cell several passing vehicles – including a somewhat harried deputy sheriff – noticed our Skywarn decals and stopped to ask questions about what was happening. As we conversed with the bystanders this storm morphed into a carbon copy of the first one, but since it was also heading into dense traffic conditions we chose not to give chase.
Incredibly the Sterling office now issued a tornado warning for the Fredericksburg / Stafford area, tempting us to head toward home to check this storm out. However we could see the top of this system and calculated that we couldn’t intercept before it too plowed into the increasingly heavy Friday afternoon traffic. Now uncertain as to what direction to head and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of warnings blaring over the weather radio we straggled over to Virginia Route 28 and turned southwest back toward Bealeton. As we crept along in still more traffic yet another tornado warning issued forth from the radio regarding a cell to our south. I whipped into a parking lot and jogged through light rain to my son’s car for a joint peek at the map. We calculated that we could catch up with this new activity in northern Culpeper county so we changed directions and vectored toward Opal again, pausing briefly at a local fast food joint for a comfort stop and some sustenance.
Now relieved and grease-fortified we aimed our two car caravan even further northwest along narrow country lanes toward the municipality of Jeffersonton, plowing through increasingly heavy rain and notching my apprehension about flash flooding up a few levels. When we emerged from a particularly fierce downpour I glanced to the south over open farmland and discovered why conditions had been so rough…we had unwittingly found our storm by punching through its rotating core! Flashing headlights at my son’s car in front of me I skidded into a convenient driveway and watched as a ragged funnel swirled very close to the ground less than 200 yards away (never saw any debris under it to confirm an actual tornado).
Photo by Chris White
Fortunately the funnel transited the farm field slightly east of us so we were spared a mad scramble to avoid it. This didn’t relieve our instant anxiety as we realized we were firmly emplanted underneath the main updraft of this storm that had just produced a confirmed tornado a few miles south of our position. With three pairs of eyes nervously searching for additional funnels we allowed this portion of the cell to clear our immediate vicinity before slowly resuming the chase. Unfortunately this storm escaped into difficult chase territory in northern Fauquier county and we soon gave up, actually growing weary of hearing tornado warnings!
On our way back home we were treated to an incomparable light show as a final convulsion from Ivan’s remnants filled the sky with lightning bolts of all sizes and description. When we finally wandered into the house after 8:00 p.m. we realized just how incredible this outbreak had been. The Sterling office eventually confirmed over two dozen tornadoes in their forecast area, with the F3 in Remington – for which we had called in the storm report – being the strongest. The Sterling office itself had even been threatened, with all personnel having to abandon their posts for cover at one point. As an exclamation point to our wildly successful chase a tornado had been sighted less than two miles from the house while we were out!