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weather

Throwback Thursday: 1951 Downtown Richmond Tornado

By | history, RVA, weather | One Comment

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond history and weather are two items up there on my list of very favorite things, so it should come as no surprise that a blurb in the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a picture of damage from an F3 tornado that ripped through Downtown Richmond on June 13, 1951 piqued my interest.

I remember my late grandma telling me a story once of a terrible windstorm or tornado coming through Byrd Park where she lived a long, long time ago, and I figured out this must have been it based on the map of the twister (below) that had it crossing the James River just south of Byrd Park, and then ripping into The Fan and going straight down Cary Street between Meadow Street and turning towards Monroe Park near the VCU campus.

VCU Library Archives

The Shockoe Examiner

This was an F3 tornado, which by definition packs winds between 158 and 206 miles per hour. In its wake, the tornado injured dozens of people, destroyed 100 homes, and damaged more than 1,000 houses and buildings in Richmond, including ripping the bell tower off Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (seen below), the top of which was never rebuilt.

I don’t know for sure, but there’s a large swath of largely later 20th century construction and empty lots along Cary Street between Meadow and Randolph Streets to this day, while the rest of The Fan and Midtown remains intact. Some areas (especially south of 195) were demolished for the construction of the Downtown Expressway, but it makes me wonder if a lot of the destroyed or heavily damaged homes were just never rebuilt.

Below is an aerial view of the tornado’s destruction, taken facing west, over the Randolph neighborhood. To the upper left, you’ll notice Byrd Park’s Swan and Shields Lakes.

Library of Virginia Archives

Sledding At Bryan Park – March 2009 Snowstorm

By | life, videos, weather | One Comment

I can’t remember how long it’s been since we got as much snow as we got this past weekend… and in March at that! The Short Pump area got about 9.5 inches. What better to do on a day like that than go sledding? I drove down to the city to Bryan Park for the first time ever (I know, I’ve only lived in Richmond my whole life) with a group of friends and had a blast. The video’s pretty entertaining, especially my friend Shushaun freaking out about us narrowly avoiding hitting a big tree!


The Curse Of The Original Southpark Mall Wal-Mart

By | news, weather | 3 Comments

As I posted about two days ago, there was a huge tornado outbreak across southeastern Virginia on Monday. Colonial Heights, although faced with an estimated $2 million in damage, faired much better than Suffolk, with $18 million in damage. The Colonial Heights tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service as an F1 with winds of up to 112 MPH (The “F” stands for the Fujita Scale, which rates tornadoes on a scale of F0-F6) and the Suffolk tornadoes were mostly F3 intensity, with winds up to 206 MPH. The devastation was widespread down there, but remarkably no one was killed (I reported on Monday that one person was killed, but later found out, along with the news sources, that the death was unrelated to the tornado).

Now I don’t believe things can be cursed, but the Colonial Heights Wal-Mart sure has some bad luck. It’s now a Sam’s Club, but so many things happened to it as a Wal-Mart it’s almost inconceivable. There’s a theory that the place is cursed because someone was killed there in the Garden Center shortly after the place opened in late 1989 or early 1990. Shortly after, the Garden Center was flattened by either downdraft winds from a severe thunderstorm or a weak tornado. In 1993, Virginia’s most intense tornado to date (still), an F4 with winds up to 260 MPH, ripped through the store, killing two employees and a customer. Monday, the F1 tornado took the exact same directional path, 400 feet from the former Wal-Mart (now Sam’s Club). I don’t think there was any major damage to the Sam’s Club, but what is it about that store and Dimmock Square that so many tornadoes have come through? The place is a freaking tornado magnet!

Like I said, I don’t believe in curses, but check out fellow blogger Carrie had to say about the place even before Monday’s events. This is baffling to me. It’s so crazy this place could be hit by tornadoes three times when Virginia barely has measurable tornadoes, much less catastrophic ones like this.

The Curse Of The Original Southpark Wal-Mart

It was a really big deal when the Southpark Mall opened in my hometown. The land on which the mall was being built was privately owned and barren, save for a lawnmower store (guised as a shack), a few swampy plants and maybe a farm animal or two. I have vague memories of my father telling me that the landowner also had a snake farm on this property, but that seems too exotic for Small Town, Virginia. Then again, a snake farm is just the type of feature my small town would boast.

It was highly rumored (amongst the kids at my elementary school) to be the biggest mall in Virginia and possibly even the country. I should say that this is a one story mall with only 4 “major” stores: Dillard’s, Hechts, Sears and JC Penney’s. We even didn’t get a Gap, a mall staple, until 2001 years ago, and it went out of business and in its place a store called Man Alive opened. (ManAlive sells spiky high heeled sneakers and oversized “Lets Get Crunk” t-shirts and is just down the way from the kiosk that sells confederate flag and NASCAR paraphernalia.)

The mall opening was a huge event. There was a search light, balloons, free Chick-Fil-A samples and human mannequins. HumanMannequins! They posed, perfectly still, wearing parachute pants, ruffled skirts and 1988’s finest double breasted suits, for hours on end. The next day in class, no one was talking about the actual mall or the many stores contained within. We were all arguing about whether or not the human mannequins ever blinked. I don’t think they did.

Shortly after the mall opened, they built the World’s Busiest Wal-Mart adjacent to the mall (At least it was rumored to be The World’s Busiest Wal-Mart amongst the kids at my middle school). This meant we didn’t have to travel to the Bradlees in a next town over to get our B-B guns and Fisherprice record players. Unfortunately, this Wal-Mart was cursed.

In either 1989 or 1990, a man walked into the Wal-Mart and shot and killed his ex-wife, a Wal-Mart Employee, in the Garden Section. This was a really big deal because a) a man walked into the Wal-Mart and shot his ex-wife to death in the Garden Section and b) this was only the second or third murder that my home town had ever experienced. The third or fourth happened on Mall property as well. Everyone (my classmates) was talking about the Wal-Mart Garden Center ghost. I shuddered every time I drove by Wal-Mart or drank a Sam’s Choice Cola. But time passed and the Wal-Mart became busier than ever.

Shortly after that fatal shooting, in May 1990, a terrible storm brewed over the Wal-Mart, damaging the very Garden Section where that poor ex-wife was murdered. There was a continuing debate at CHHS as to whether or not it was a tornado or just a very bad storm, but it was confirmed to be an F2 tornado. Thankfully only minor injuries were sustained. Wal-Mart employees worked overtime to cover the gaping roof with a tarp and clean up all the stray kiddy pools and terra cotta shards. Within days, the Wal-Mart was back in business. But that wasn’t the end of it. Bad things come in threes.

On a Saturday afternoon, in August 1993, a huge F4 tornado, (Virginia’s worst tornado, according to the 1994 High School yearbook), plowed through that Wal-Mart and put it on the national news for its casualties (three) and injuries (198). I derived a lot of pleasure from the attention I got when my friends found out my brother was in the mall when it happened and helped people out of the rubble. Plus, just moments before the twister touch-down, my father and I had just driven past the mall on I-95 on our way to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit my aunt. And my mother was on the turnpike bridge and was gusted into another lane, just missing the path of a Mack truck. The tornado nearly leveled the Wal-Mart– along with a MJDesigns craft store, a mattress warehouse and the tree where Pocahontas saved John Smith, to name a few.

And although the second and final tornado didn’t actually happen in the Garden Section, it did blow contents of the Garden Section all over the store and into some people’s heads. Cue Twilight music.

Officials finally accepted that the Wal-Mart was cursed, because they razed the original Wal-Mart and built a new, improved and blood-freeSuper Wal-Mart about a quarter of a mile away in the new Southpark Commons development area. The new Wal-Mart is just down the street from the World’s Largest Arby’s.

Tornado Outbreak: Suffolk Devastation & Colonial Heights Déjà Vu

By | news, Uncategorized, weather | 4 Comments

Fifteen years ago, in 1993, a strong F4 (winds of up to 260 MPH) tornado touched down in Colonial Heights, destroying the Wal-Mart store and killing three people, before tearing through Petersburg’s historic district. Well today, history seems to have repeated itself. A moderate tornado touched down in the exact same shopping center (Dimmock Square, near Southpark Mall). Is that eerie or what? I was only five years old the first time it happened, but (strangely) vaguely remember seeing it on TV. The Dress Barn and Target stores suffered blown out windows and minor roof damage, but for the most part there was no extreme structural damage.

It was a different story in Suffolk this evening. The same line of storms marched eastward (and strengthened considerably as they did so) and proceeded to completely flatten a portion Suffolk’s historic district, then went through a golf course community and completely wiped large, substantial homes clean off their foundations to the point where all that was left was a concrete slab beneath. This part was especially eerie to me because the neighborhood looked very similar to mine (Wyndham) from the aerial shot.

Suffolk is completely devastated. It looks like an atomic bomb went off the way the homes literally exploded with the extreme winds. At the time I’m writing this, there has only been one person confirmed dead, but unfortunately, it would be miraculous if the death toll didn’t rise, by the looks of the flattened neighborhoods. Hopefully it won’t, though. Virginia is no stranger to tornadoes, but usually experiences much weaker ones than this. This was extremely rare. Keep your thoughts and prayers with the Hampton Roads community during the aftermath of this immense, widespread natural disaster.

I find all of this very interesting since most of you know how much I like weather and storms. I flipped through the local news channels and hooked up my Comcast digital box to my Mac to record everything as it happened. Here are some screenshots from the live broadcasts I recorded from NBC 12 (WWBT), 8 NEWS (WRIC), CBS 6 (WTVR), and WAVY 10 (WAVY) (NBC affiliate in Norfolk, via live streaming on-air web simulcast).

1993 archive video footage of the destruction of the Southpark Wal-Mart (WRIC)

Meteorologist Jim Duncan advises citizens to take shelter during a tornado warning (WWBT)

Aerial image of Dimmock Square Shopping Center (perimeter highlighted in yellow) and the adjacent Wal-Mart store (now a Sam’s Club) that were both hit by tornadoes that followed the exact same paths in 1993 and 2008 (Blackwood Development Corporation)

Cars were tossed like toys in the Dimmock Square Shopping Center parking lot, in front of Target (WWBT)

A house suffers extreme damage in Suffolk (WTVR)

A Suffolk antiques shop is cut in half with almost no visible damage from the front or rear façades, but obviously the historic building is a complete loss (WAVY)

 The owner of a car dealership snaps a picture through the front windows of his business as a huge tornado barrels through Suffolk (WAVY)