May 31, 2003 Tornado in Brodnax, Virginia

chase images and log by William T. Hark, M.D.

After spending almost two weeks chasing in Tornado Alley and seeing only a few minor storms, I returned early to Virginia and saw a tornado.

There was an approaching cold front and a strong upper trough swinging eastward across the central Appalachians. A low in Ohio was forecast to move eastward. Shear was predicted to be very strong and there was good upper level support. Supercells and possibly tornadoes were predicted. North Carolina and southeastern Virginia were under a Moderate Risk. Negatives included southwesterly winds across most of the area and cloud-cover that dampened surface heating.

I initially stayed at home because I was busy cleaning my basement. I was tired after almost two weeks of chasing with little success. A couple of East Coast chasers (William Coyle and Stephen Jascourt, who were meeting Dan Robinson from WVa) contacted me about chasing, but I initially refused. I was very busy with house chores. After more cleaning, I checked additional data and couldn't stand it. I had to chase. Choice of targets was difficult. I was considering the Roanoke Rapids area; however, southern North Carolina had a better combination moisture. Uppper level support was good across the region. I drove south on Interstate 95 from Richmond, Virginia. After initial rain showers in the morning, the sky cleared with scattered cumulus. As I neared Petersburg, the sky became overcast. I was concerned that the clouds would retard surface heating from the sun. I was also concerned about the southwesterly winds through the region, though the winds had shifted locally to south or even slightly southeasterly in my target area. I stopped at a truck stop just over the border in North Carolina and checked data. Along the interstate, I have easy access to wireless internet. Unfortunately, the storms were forming lines rather than discreet supercells. There were storms in a line to my north in Virginia and another line to my south. I hoped that more isolated storms would form in my area. I wanted to get ahead of the southerly line; however, it was too far away. I drove a few miles to the south and arrived at my original target area of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. I waited for awhile watching the sky. A lone shower formed to the west but it died. The northerly line of storms slowly moved in my direction. I checked the radar and one area of the line of storms was more isolated and strong. This would be my target, and I plotted the best way to intercept it. I drove north from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina and headed west on 46 that eventually crosses into Virginia and turns northward toward Lawrenceville. I stopped to check radar data in Lawrenceville but my phone was on analog. I wasn't able to use the cell phone. I then tried Tim Vasquez. who gave me an update. One part of the line was slightly ahead of the other storms and appeared more severe. This was my storm and it was moving toward me. I headed west on 58 through heavy rain. The rain slowed when I entered the town of Brodnax. I could see the edge of the storm. Occasional lightning bolts flashed. I looked toward the south at a clearing and noticed what appeared to be a tall column of smoke. The smoke was rotating! This was a tornado. There was rotation visible from the cloud base to the ground. I was amazed that the tornado was almost stationary yet the whole storm was rapidly moving to the east. I filmed the tornado through the rain. The tornado lasted from 5:57PM to 5:59PM and another brief tornado lasted from 5:59 to 6:00 PM. I headed east and hoped to get in front of the storm, but it was moving too fast. I rechecked the radar and there were no storms nearby except for the line to my south. I ended to chase and returned home. It is ironic that I spent almost two weeks on the Plains and saw almost no storms. I return to Virginia and see a tornado.

(Video Stills)

Radar image courtesy of WeatherTap at 5:44 EDT. Tornado began at 5:57PM. Blue arrow is my location at 5:57PM.

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