Rita Fox heard a noise like a tractor about 1 p.m. yesterday and, looking outside, she saw a roaring, twisting cloud spinning over her neighbor's house. On an afternoon when storms soaked and battered the Washington area, a nasty squall touched down west of La Plata in Charles County and tore through Fox's country neighborhood and a farm nearby.
A small tornado spun along about 500 yards or so, tearing up some trees by the roots and scattering debris, said Don McGuire, the county's director of emergency management. A National Weather Service-trained spotter -- an emergency manager -- and other witnesses saw the funnel cloud, Weather Service meteorologist John Darnley said. The agency plans to send out a team today to confirm that it was a tornado. Experts also will check reports by a police officer and others that a tornado sped through King George County later in the afternoon.
In Fauquier County, a tornado touched down in Bealeton and moved north into Warrenton, said Brian Guyer, a National Weather Service meteorologist. And about 12:45 p.m., a tornado barreled through parts of Caroline and Stafford counties and crossed Interstate 95 near Quantico in Prince William County, the Weather Service said.
The twisters caused scattered property damage, but no injuries were immediately reported.
Up to eight inches of rain fell in parts of western Virginia, and at least 15 roads were closed in Roanoke and surrounding Roanoke County. All had reopened by 6 p.m.
In Rita Fox's neighborhood in Charles County, people felt lucky two years ago when the tornado that wiped out La Plata's town center spared them while passing so close to their homes that they could see the funnel cloud. Yesterday, they said a funnel cloud spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Frances felt terrifying.
"It was like a black wall rushing at me," Fox said. She grabbed a sofa cushion and her Lhasa apso and hid in the bathroom, screaming. Bits of insulation were flying around, she said, and her little gray house was breathing -- walls and ceiling moving with the wind, as though exhaling. It was the loudest thing she has ever heard, she said, adding, "I couldn't hear all these trees falling. I couldn't hear myself scream."
Across the street, Tony Huntt, 25, had run outside to get his bull mastiff, Smoky, after hearing his fire department pager beep with a warning about a tornado. The wind slammed his door shut, locking him out. He held onto the doorknob to steady himself, then ran to hide under the deck. "I was getting blown all over the place," he said. The funnel cloud looked as wide as his house, he said. "I was terrified. I was screaming."
A few houses down, Judy Dudley's son had called her at work and yelled: "There's a tornado in the pool! It's coming right into the house!"
Then the line went dead.
As people rushed home from the nearby Navy base and other workplaces, many said they were relieved that the damage was not worse.
Fox's deck was damaged. A tree snapped and landed on Huntt's truck and his roommate's Chevy Blazer, crunching the SUV. Two coolers and a kiddie pool had landed in his yard from who-knows-where. Dudley's roof got hit by a huge oak branch, but it did not break through the attic.
Carolyn Starcher had some of the worst of it: She found a gaping hole in her kitchen. "I've got a new skylight," she said later, sitting out of the rain on a neighbor's porch, helping some of the children with their homework while her husband worked on the roof. Her family is not allowed to stay in their blue ranch house until they get the tree limbs out of the way.
Wind-felled trees left a few dozen residents south of Warrenton without power, Capt. Darren Stevens of the Fauquier Department of Fire and Emergency Services said. He said the tornado caused damage in the Morrisville area of the county, tearing up a glass and aluminum greenhouse complex belonging to Piedmont Growers, destroying a wall of one house and a section of roof from another, and overturning several trucks. Stevens said no residents were displaced.
On westbound Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, vehicles had to drive around the high water on the ramp leading to Nutley Street North, Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Ryan Hall said. VDOT dispatched maintenance workers to clear the drain and pump out water, and traffic had returned to normal by 5:30 p.m., he said.
Some flights arriving at Dulles International Airport were delayed in a holding pattern before landing, Metropolitan Airports Authority spokesman Tom Sullivan said. He said that no flights were believed diverted and that the storm had no effect on operations at Reagan National Airport.
About 6:30 p.m., more than 200 households in McLean lost power, Ronnie Harmon of Dominion Virginia Power said.
North of Richmond, in the Bowling Green area of Caroline County, an apparent tornado seriously damaged at least seven homes, three of which were under construction, said Maj. M.W. Hall of the county sheriff's department. Hundreds of trees and some power lines were also knocked down in the county.
About 500 students at Bowling Green Elementary School, who were about to head home, were kept in the hallways until the storm passed through. Outside, about 200 trees and a picnic pavilion on the school grounds were toppled, Hall said.
Staff writers Allan Lengel and Christina Samuels contributed to this report.