Appalachian Tornadoes, They Happen and can be Deadly

Photo: Oldest known photograph of a tornado, taken August 28, 1884.
Photo: Oldest known photograph of a tornado, taken August 28, 1884.

“We never get tornadoes here, the mountains keep us protected.”  This is a passive statement I had heard my elders utter a countless number of times throughout my Appalachian childhood.

Growing up, watching news reports of tornadoes wreaking havoc throughout the Great Plains and coastal flatlands of the South made me grateful to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia; far enough inland to be protected from annual devastating hurricanes, far enough from major fault lines to be free from the terrors of earthquakes, all the while sheltered from tornadoes by the beautiful mountains of home.

Then came 2011.

In August of that year, while visiting with my mother just outside of Wytheville, Virginia, I felt the floor begin to rapidly shake beneath my feet for an extended period of time.

It was my first earthquake, and though a magnitude of 5.8 is probably something folks on the West Coast would scoff at, the shake was strong enough to damage the Washington Monument in such a manner that it took over three years for crews to repair.

Felt from Atlanta to Quebec, the incident removed any doubt that potential for the same earthquakes which terrorized cities like Charleston a century earlier still lingered deep beneath the East Coast’s surface.

The realization that the Appalachian Mountains are not immune to earthquakes came just four months after another startling revelation: The mountains do not always keep us safe from tornadoes.

On April 8, 2011, not less than three miles from my home, two tornadoes from a single supercell thunderstorm touched down near the Town of Pulaski, Virginia.

Rated an EF1 and EF2, the two twisters were separated by a mountain known as Draper Mountain.

Studying the effect the mountain may have had on the tornadoes, Kathryn Prociv hypothesized that rather than shielding from the storm, the mountain range may have actually made the storm worse.

“In short, the rapid change in elevation due to the storm crossing the ridge may have had a profound effect on the rotational strength of the rotating updraft.

“When the supercell mesocyclone encountered the sudden decrease in elevation on the lee-side of Draper Mountain, that may have caused the updraft to stretch and tighten and thus rotate faster; a phenomenon known as vorticity stretching,” she writes.

A handful of days later, just to our west, another pair of tornadoes proved deadly in Glade Spring, Washington County, Virginia, and even destroyed the home of one of my best friends.

“The Glade Spring tornado was an EF3 that occurred around 2,000 feet, and caused devastating damage [in the community]. That same night an EF1 tornado ripped through a campground near Mt. Rogers at nearly 4,000 feet,” states US Tornado.

Though data from the Storm Prediction Center shows very clear proof that the elevation and cooler more stable air provided in the Appalachian Mountains certainly make tornadoes far less common, it also reveals that tornadoes do still occur here.

This is a reality that was felt on a terrifying level in the spring of 1974.

In April of that year more than 148 tornadoes touched down within a 24-hour period. It was the most violent tornado outbreak ever recorded, with 30 F4 or F5 tornadoes confirmed. At one point, as many as 15 separate tornadoes were on the ground simultaneously.

On April 3 & 4, 1974, tornadoes occurred in places few thought possible.
Two people were killed in Knox County, Tennessee, two lost their lives in western North Carolina, one person died in Southwest Virginia, a child lost their life in West Virginia and several residents of Eastern Kentucky were killed in the tornadoes.

In the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, one tornado winded more than 32 miles through the Appalachian Mountains, causing near-F4 damage to frame homes, and killed a child when her mobile home was thrown 75 yards onto railroad tracks.

So why is the belief that tornadoes do not occur in the mountains so widely held?

Former Roanoke meteorologist Kristina Montuori told Appalachian Magazine, “Mountains do hinder tornado development, but they do not completely eliminate it. Tornadoes can and have happened in the mountains.”

She went on to state, “Typically, we do not hear about them because there are not as many people around to witness them.”

Experts agree that the key to tornado safety is found in simple preparedness.

It is important to remain alert to signs of an approaching tornado and seek shelter if threatening conditions exist.

“Look for environmental clues including a dark sky, large hail or a loud roar.  If a warning is issued, move to a pre-designated shelter, such as a basement. Stay away from windows. Get out of automobiles and lie flat in a ditch or depression.  Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car,” advises the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Tornadoes can occur at any time of the year.

In southern states, peak tornado occurrence is March through May, while peak months in northern states are during the summer.

Tornadoes are most likely between 3 and 9 p.m. but have occurred at all hours.

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