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The state of tornadoes in Virginia

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NOAA
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Last August, two tornadoes touched down in Montgomery County. Justin Buchinsky is a Virginia Tech meteorology student who spotted one of the tornadoes…

“And the noise it was making -- the noise that tornado makes, the train noise that you hear in all these movies and TV shows is true; it’s exactly what it sounded like,” Buchinsky told me a few hours after the tornado touched down.

The western part of the state is more mountainous. Now, growing up in Montgomery County, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard tornadoes can’t happen in the mountains. I have no idea where that comes from... But it’s a common myth.

“Matter of fact, the deadliest tornado ever to strike Virginia – 1929 May, Rye Cove, Scott County, elevation 1,500 feet – a school was struck by a tornado in May 1929, killed 13 people,” says Phil Hysell, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Blacksburg. “To this day it is the sixth highest number of people killed from a single tornado in a school.”

He says tornadoes can happen anywhere across the state. Historically, though, eastern Virginia tends to see more.

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On average, Virginia documents about 20 tornadoes a year. Hysell says the number of tornadoes each year in Virginia has jumped up, especially over the last two decades.

“Now, part of that I think is due just to the enhanced and increased network of how we collect information – through social media and having weather service offices across the state that have people that can go survey these tornadoes,” he adds.

Despite the increased numbers, he adds that the number of strong to violent tornadoes in Virginia – levels three through five on the Enhanced-Fujita Scale with winds of at least 150 miles per hour – hasn’t really changed much since 1950.

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A quick glance at the number of recorded tornadoes in Virginia over the past few years.

Tornadic activity can occur at any time throughout the year, but the spring and summer usually have the most recorded tornadoes – in addition to another period in the fall.

“The second months with the highest number of tornadoes is September. So, we have a secondary peak in the fall,” Hysell says.

Those time periods typically have all four ingredients needed for a tornado to form:

  1. Instability – the difference in temperature between the surface and higher up in the atmosphere
  2. More opportunities for lift, like cold fronts
  3. There’s also a lot more wind shear – the change in wind speed and direction as you move up in the atmosphere
  4. And an abundance of moisture typically available in the spring, summer and early fall

While Virginia doesn’t see nearly as many tornadoes as some parts of the country, Hysell says it’s very important for people to always be ready in the event one ever does occur nearby. He adds that those preparation plans need to be nailed down ahead of time.

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NWS Wakefield
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Virginia typically doesn't see extremely strong tornadoes. There have only been two reported EF4 tornadoes since 1950 and no recorded EF5's.

“When we issue a tornado warning, you literally only have a few minutes of lead time typically from the time the warning is issued to the time the tornado occurs,” he explains. “So you don’t have a lot of time to think about where’s the best place I need to go, how do I inform my family that we need to take shelter – it should be instinctive, we should be able to know what we do at a moment’s notice.”

Hysell says there are resources available to help you come up with a preparedness plan and that it’s important to have multiple ways to receive weather alerts. That includes a step-by-step guide on what to do when a tornado warning is activated. He also stresses that if you aren’t sure that a neighbor or loved one has received a weather warning, don’t be afraid to reach out to them.

“You could help save lives.”

Phil Hysell is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg.
Here's the full interview with Hysell on the state of tornadoes in Virginia.

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