Day 5 of “Sixteen Years of Virginia Storm Chasing”: This was my first experience with getting a bit too close to a tornado. Poor visibility in the wilds of Spotsylvania county definitely hindered our family chase attempt.
“On May 11th 2006 most of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge mountains was under a tornado watch so I was primed to storm chase. However during a morning eye doctor appointment one of my pupils had been dilated and I couldn’t focus well enough to drive. Thus I prevailed upon my daughter – just home from college – to drive the two of us to meet my son in Thornburg. We rendezvoused with him just before 4:30 p.m. and crammed into his vehicle, checking radar and surface conditions via decent cell coverage near the interstate (I-95).
As we examined the radar view our weather radio stirred to life with a tornado warning issued for Louisa county to our southwest. Extrapolating the storm’s trajectory we picked an intercept point in the heavily forested wilds of southern Spotsylvania county and streaked southwestward. Finding a rare open spot in a field near the hamlet of Paytes we paused to visually scope out the storm heading toward us.
Realizing we were too far west we quickly backtracked to Pamunkey Road, a northeast-leading rural route. As we flashed past a very brief break in the trees I spied a large funnel just to our south, ratcheting up the excitement level inside the vehicle several notches.
After blindly leap-frogging ahead a few miles along the densely wooded road we stopped at the intersection of Pamunkey and Catharpin Roads to take stock of our position with respect to the storm’s movement. The next navigation decision, mind you, was a direct result of my still-dilated pupil and resultant fuzzy vision: I misread the road sign and directed my son to turn left (the wrong direction) onto Catharpin Road. When copious amounts of leaves and large tree branches began showering down around us my son and I both simultaneously realized that we were directly in the tornado’s path! He quickly executed a white-knuckled U-turn and we motored back in the proper direction. All three of us heaved sighs of relief as we headed northeastward once again as leaves floated down out of the sky all around us: debris!!!
When we neared the metropolis of Todd’s Tavern we pulled into a gravel parking lot overlooking a large open field to the northwest, confident that we were well out of harm’s way. My son and I clambered out to stretch our legs and regain visual situational awareness (no cell coverage so no peeks at radar). When I observed freshly shredded leaves still wafting down around us I wasn’t convinced we were ahead of the tornado since a storm was grumbling north of us. I thought our unplanned detour had allowed the tornadic cell to get ahead of us.
Just as I uttered this thought out loud my attention suddenly riveted on the rain curtains over the open field…they had begun to rotate very rapidly left-to-right. I yelled something akin to “THERE IT IS, LET’S GET OUT OF HERE NOW!!” and snapped a couple of blurry photos during my headlong dive back into the vehicle. The tornado had materialized 150 yards away over the open field!
With no time to ensure we were outside the damage path we sprayed gravel all over the parking lot while retreating rapidly eastward. After regaining a modicum of calm and dignity I called in a tornado report to the Sterling National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office and we reversed direction to resume the chase. We never caught back up with the tornado in the highly wooded terrain but we had definitely seen it!
The NWS office sent out a storm survey crew the next day and proclaimed the tornado an F0 based upon light tree damage just south of Todd’s Tavern.
Turns out that if we had stayed in that parking lot we would have remained safely out of its path. My only regret is that the three of us didn’t stick around to watch it cross the field.