The tornado that hit Mitchell’s home on the Delmarva Peninsula, about midway between Cambridge and Salisbury, Md., was one of likely more than two dozen that tore up the East Coast as Tropical Storm Isaias swept northward.
National Weather Service offices issued some 115 tornado warnings from Monday night through Tuesday evening from the Carolinas to New England. Northern North Carolina, the Virginia Tidewater, the Delmarva Peninsula and coastal New Jersey were among the hardest hit.
National Weather Service survey teams have dispersed along the storm’s path, examining damage to determine whether a tornado struck and if so, how strong it may have been.
Landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes can, and frequently do, produce tornadoes — but they are usually quick-hitting, capricious in nature and tend to move rapidly. That’s exactly the experience Mitchell had with the twister that struck her home Tuesday.
And she swears that it was a half-inch cable that saved her life.
The shallow tropical downpour that ultimately spawned the twister had prompted tornado warnings farther to the south, with the individual storm embedded in Isaias’s larger circulation, moving rapidly north-northwest. Because tornadoes in tropical storms are wrapped up in the flow of the larger tropical system, they cover ground at an exceptional rate, seldom providing people visual cues before they strike.
There were no audio hints, either.
“There was nothing, it was just trickling,” said Mitchell, who was peering out her back door when the winds picked up. “There was no sound whatsoever, nothing. They always say it sounds like a train. It didn’t.”
Instead, the wind was “calm as a cucumber” moments before the tornado struck, she said.
“There was a guy that was leaving from a driveway down the road,” Mitchell recalled. “He said it was pitch black and raining — pouring cats and dogs on his driver’s side. And he had his passenger’s side window down, [there] wasn’t a drop of rain on that side.”
An abrupt shut-off of rainfall can be a sign one is entering the updraft region of a storm, where air is rising. That’s the part that typically contains a tornado.
“When I looked out [the back] window, the patio furniture was right here where the cargo trailer [now] is,” Mitchell said. “But then it started lifting that table up, just like it was [Harry] Houdini, lifting it up in the air.”
Around that same time, an enormous tree in Mitchell’s backyard began swaying furiously “like a sapling,” and she knew something was very wrong. She scurried to the center of her home.
“I stepped one foot into the hallway, and that’s when it just threw me right down to the ground,” Mitchell said. “I mean it just folded me down like a tree falling over, just smack, right down. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t move, and I didn’t hear anything. And it wasn’t raining outside, it wasn’t dark … it just hit.”
When she realized it was over and she was safe, she sat for a moment before inspecting the damage.
“I [came] to the kitchen and saw the roof [torn] off,” Mitchell said. “I called my mom, and I stood there and said, ‘Hey, tornado just hit the house. It’s bad, but I’m okay.’ ”
Eventually, the driver who had witnessed the cloud descend onto Mitchell’s home stopped and called out to her to make sure she was all right. Because of the mounds of furniture and debris strewn about, Mitchell escaped through a window.
When she surveyed the damage, Mitchell couldn’t believe she had survived the storm unscathed. A recreational vehicle and trailer on her property were destroyed, while the enormous oak tree she had been watching narrowly missed her home. An outbuilding nearby was ravaged, damaging her 1969 Chevrolet Camaro inside. Another vehicle, about 30 feet away, emerged without a scratch. It was parked next to her shed, which was untouched.
The tornado’s damage path, which had a counterclockwise hook to it, was about 50 feet wide at times — about the length of a school bus. Tropical tornadoes tend to be quite small in diameter, leaving behind incredibly localized damage paths.
Lower-end tornadoes are also often dragged by their counterclockwise-spinning parent circulation, known as a “mesocyclone,” ahead, leaving large left-curving arcs of damage. That was visible in Mitchell’s yard.
The National Weather Service will have the final say about the tornado’s intensity once a damage assessment is performed. A look at the damage points to at least a high-end EF1 rating, with winds in the 110-mph range. There may have been some low-end EF2 damage, particularly considering the strength of the home’s construction.
That boils down to the one thing Mitchell says may have saved her life — the home’s anchoring. The house sat atop a foundation but was moved off that cinder-block base about 12 to 15 feet by the tornado. The only thing that likely stopped the house from blowing into field and being demolished? An anchor cable.
“That’s really what saved me; I swear that’s what saved me,” Mitchell said. “Take a picture of that.”
The house appeared to have been thrust forward but was halted by the cable, which dug into the corner of the structure as it was shoved farther off its foundation.
A lack of anchoring is what typically makes mobile homes — the frame of which is somewhat structurally sound — so susceptible to even low-end tornadic winds. Mitchell’s home was built atop a foundation but still would probably have been carried away had an anchor cable not held it in place.
She said that she felt the tornado begin to drag the house away but was “slammed” when the house was “pushed up" against the guard wire.
“Seeing where the corner of the house is [now], how much it shifted, how it’s wedged up there … that’s what stopped the house from moving any farther,” Mitchell said. “I [would have been] across wherever; I probably would be in a field out there.”
In the meantime, Mitchell is picking up the pieces. Above all, she’s grateful to be alive.
“God is good; that’s all I can say. God is good,” she said. “When you look at this and everything that has happened, it’s a miracle.”