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Storm spawns county’s fourth tornado

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

A supercell thunderstorm that passed through Pulaski County Friday spawned the county’s fourth tornado in less than a decade, having local emergency services wondering what’s next.

Fortunately, only the two tornadoes that touched down in Pulaski and Draper in 2011 left behind serious structural damage. However, Pulaski County Emergency Services Director Josh Tolbert says there’s no way of knowing whether this type of weather is something the county has to get used to.

“It’s certainly the new normal,” Tolbert said. “A lot of planning and preparation we do for is historical — based on what impacts us the most. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be on the list.”

The third tornado touched down in the Belspring area in October 2017 and was similar to Friday’s event, according to Tolbert.

A preliminary storm report from National Weather Service in Blacksburg indicates much of the damage left behind in the Robinson Tract, Bella Vista subdivision and Alum Spring Road area Friday evening was caused by straight-line winds. An assessment of the damage, though, determined an embedded tornado touched down near Blevins Lane, off Alum Spring, around 8:10 p.m.

“Damage track associated with the tornado was short as it moved east northeast, parallel to Sunrise Drive,” the report states. “After traveling roughly quarter of a mile, the tornado ended. Numerous trees were found along the path with tornado-like damage characteristics, separating them from the numerous others with the straight-line wind event …”

NWS determined the tornado was on the ground for only about a minute and had a path width of around 50 yards. With maximum winds estimated at 90-95 mph, it was ranked as an EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. EF1 tornadoes have winds of 86-110 mph.

Tolbert said the most common damage from Friday’s storm, other than trees, was overturned heat pumps and shingles, gutters and siding being torn off homes or damaged.

Emergency services surveyed eight homes with damage, but he said there could be others that staff didn’t specifically talk with.

“We have four levels of damage: destroyed, major damage, minor damage and affected/habitable. All of these (eight) homes were affected/habitable, which means they are livable, but require repairs,” he said.

Several outbuildings and a large equipment shed owned by Gregory’s Seeding and Landscaping on Alum Spring Road were destroyed. Some vehicles, including at least one antique, were total losses. Some were inside destroyed buildings and others had trees fall on them.

Tolbert estimated damaged trees numbered in the thousands. After the storm passed through Friday emergency services personnel worked for several hours to remove around 100 trees and limbs from roads so homes would be accessible.

“There was one road we worked that had 50 trees across it,” he said.

The goal Friday night was to make sure no one was injured and making homes accessible in the event of a fire or other emergency situation occurred overnight or early Saturday.

“When you have one tree it’s not that bad, but when you get a lot of trees mixed in with power lines you have to get a lot of resources, like VDOT, AEP and Verizon, there or we can’t work on it,” Tolbert added.

Saturday morning, Tolbert took Dave Wirt and Mike Sporer of National Weather Service on a tour to assess the damage. Wirt is head meteorologist at Blacksburg’s National Weather Service office.

Tolbert said Wirt and Sporer were trying to determine the wind speed, track and boundary of the storm and what types of storm elements caused the damage.

“You can witness rotation in the sky, but it may not be on the ground. They were looking for signs a big heavy mass of air came collapsing straight at the ground and spread out in all directions when it hit,” said Tolbert. “It was a super cell thunderstorm that’s what produced that small tornado, but there could easily be other areas of straight-line winds that were 85 miles per hour.”

Tolbert said the storm was unusual in it’s, which was almost directly north to south. “That’s an odd direction. I would say the wind direction was pretty rare. Most of the people out there said the storm came out of a different direction than it normally does.”

He attributed the storm track to the extensive damage to Gregory’s equipment shed. It apparently was open on the end facing the wind.

As for a damage estimate, Tolbert said the county isn’t preparing a monetary estimate because “we’re not even close to a threshold of damage” necessary for assistance from the government.

Although there were no injures from the storm Friday, he said there were a few injuries reported during Saturday’s cleanup. Most were the result of falls.

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