Funnel clouds reported across area; 5 killed in southwest Va.


Sherman Howard looks at the remains of a trailer where his aunt, Sherlian Howard, was killed after a tornado touched down in Halifax County, Va. (Kim Raff/AP)

The atmospheric drama that has been sowing death and destruction elsewhere in the nation swept through the region Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, but the Washington area appeared to escape the worst of the storms.

Western and southern Virginia weren’t so lucky. Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency after five people were killed and more than 50 were injured by tornadoes and severe weather across the state. The move will allow Virginia agencies to assist local governments in the clean up.

Tornado warnings were issued across the D.C. suburbs early Thursday morning. Fast-moving bands of storms packed high winds and torrential rains. A funnel cloud formed over Point of Rocks in Frederick County shortly before 7 a.m., according to the National Weather Service, but there were no reports of tornadoes touching down in the immediate area Thursday morning.

There were widespread reports of damaged trees, including one that fell across Route 109 in Barnesville and another that landed on an electric line in Middleburg, according to the Weather Service.

Fauquier County schools were delayed by two hours and Prince William County schools canceled outdoor activities. The storms were causing flight delays of up to 90 minutes at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

The remaining tornado warnings expired at 9:45 a.m., but a tornado watch is in place for the entire region until 3 p.m.

Farther south and west, the storms caused major destruction. Four of the fatalities and most of the injuries occurred when what appeared to be a tornado hit a mobile home park, truck stop and apartment complex in Washington County, Virginia Department of Emergency Management officials said. Storms ripped through a subdivision in Shenandoah County, damaging several homes.

As evening approached in Washington on Wednesday, skies grew ominously dark, rain poured down and funnel clouds were spotted at places miles apart. Winds rose, trees toppled, hail spattered the ground, and it seemed that the area was on the verge of true peril.

“It was a funnel cloud at the treetops,” said Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor, reporting what he saw in the Morningside area of the county, near Andrews Air Force Base. “It actually went over top of me.”

But, Bashoor said, the funnel never seemed to touch down.

But incidents throughout the region attracted widespread attention.

“The winds all of a sudden picked up,” Bashoor said, and tree branches seemed to rise into the air, amid sheets of rain.

Late Wednesday night, powerful winds, possibly from a tornado, were blamed for damage to a building at the Bristow Center, a shopping center in western Prince William County.

The Morningside area of Prince George’s appeared to be one of the most severely affected in the metropolitan area. Road signs fell over, along with swing sets in yards. Tree branches and roofing shingles littered Allentown Road, near the Air Force base. Not far away, a tree crashed onto a house, according to the National Weather Service.

And at least one report indicated that a funnel cloud might in fact have touched down in the Andrews area.

In the immediate Washington metropolitan area, funnel clouds were spotted in Charles County, in the Bryans Road area; in Howard County; in Prince George’s County, west of Clinton; and in Prince William County, west of Quantico.

In addition to the possible touchdown near Andrews, preliminary reports indicated that at least two more funnel clouds might have touched down in or near the Washington area.

Farther away, in central and southern Virginia, many more such clouds were reported to the Weather Service.

In Halifax County, near the North Carolina border, one person was reported killed and six injured in connection with what was described in a report to the Weather Service as a possible tornado.

In Caroline County, south of Fredericksburg, the service was told of a possible tornado on the ground in the Ruther Glen area.

A trained observer told the service of a tornado actually on the ground near Oilville in Goochland County, near Interstate 64 and Route 617.

That report came about 8:15 p.m., more than an hour after two funnel clouds, accompanied by hailstones of sizes between golf balls and baseballs, were seen near Cottontown Road in Cumberland County, about 30 miles west of Richmond.

The number of trees downed in Hanover County, near Verdon and Noel roads, suggested to someone who saw the damage that a tornado might have struck, the Weather Service said.

Between 6 and 7 p.m., more than three-quarters of an inch of rain fell at Dulles International Airport. A Centreville resident posted this comment on the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang site: “You do not want to be out in this.”

But some areas seemed, at least through the early part of the night, to be unaffected. At Reagan National Airport, only one-hundredth of an inch of rain was reported. Few if any utility customers lost power, according to company Web sites. “As usual,’’ read a comment on the Weather Gang site, “everything missed Falls Church.”

The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, but the game was played. And as the day ended, there were signs that threats, which had seemed dire, were about to subside. At about 11:20 p.m., a commenter on the Weather Gang site suggested: “Looks like maybe we can soon relax?”

See a tornado, funnel cloud or have reports of damage? Leave your report in the comments.

Staff writers Martin Weil and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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