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D.C. braces for second night of storms after deadly lightning strike

A flood watch is in effect Friday afternoon and evening

Lightning strikes over the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis on Aug. 4, 2022. (Robert Bishop)
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After an evening of frequent and violent storms that unleashed flooding rain, damaging winds and deadly lightning, the Washington region faces another bout of turbulent weather Friday.

Thunderstorms, some producing torrential rain and dangerous lightning, are probable, especially after 4 p.m. or so.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday.

“Any thunderstorms will be capable of producing very heavy rainfall, with localized totals of two to four inches possible,” the Weather Service wrote. “Much of the rain may fall within a one to three hour period, making rapid rises in creeks and streams possible, as well as flash flooding in urban areas.”

A few storms also could contain damaging gusts, although the wind threat is somewhat lower than it was Thursday.

Wisconsin couple dead after lightning strike Thursday near White House

Looking back on Thursday’s storms

Thursday’s storms were more numerous and longer-lived than expected. We had called for hit-or-miss storms ending around sunset; instead, widespread storms developed during the evening and lasted until after midnight.

The Weather Service received about 140 reports of severe weather over the greater region; downed trees and gusts over 39 mph generated most of those reports. However, there were a handful of reports of flash flooding in the District and Baltimore. Rainfall totals were mostly between 0.5 and 1.5 inches, but there were some areas that posted between 1.5 and 3.5 inches, mostly east of Interstate 95.

The wind damage was concentrated in small pockets and was associated with downward bursts of wind high in the sky that slammed into the ground and fanned out; these are known as microbursts. One particularly intense microburst caused tree damage around Alexandria and Landmark in Virginia. This same storm unleashed a gust of 58 mph at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. Trees also were toppled inside the District, and around Winchester, Gaithersburg, Columbia and Baltimore.

Why it was stormier than forecast

Looking at the weather maps, the overall environment seemed benign: There were no nearby fronts, and the jet stream was displaced far to the north over Canada. With the jet stream so far north and a massive “ridge” of high pressure dominating the Mid-Atlantic, wind shear was weak and not thought to have contributed to the storm severity. There was a weak high-altitude disturbance evident that might have helped kick off storms over the region, independent of the activity that was mainly confined to the mountains.

However, given the exceptionally high surface temperatures and humidity — highs reached the mid- to upper 90s — the atmosphere became very unstable. The unstable air fueled intense but short-lived storm updrafts that quickly paved the way for torrential downpours, concentrated cloud-to-ground lightning and the microbursts.

What happens when lightning strikes — and how to stay safe

Additionally, the cool downdrafts of these cells spreading along the surface quickly congealed and helped lift the air over a broader region, causing loosely organized clusters of storms to evolve as the hours ticked on. In a sense, the storms “bootstrapped” themselves into expanded coverage and a higher degree of organization. The prediction models did a poor job handling this consolidation. The greatest degree of consolidation was near and east of I-95, where the axis of greatest instability lay. Additionally, cooler winds off Chesapeake Bay increased temperature contrasts, intensifying nearby storms.

The storms were picturesque

While hazardous, the storms produced some stunning scenes across the skies. A number of readers captured views of lightning strikes and rainbows simultaneously and, in the storm’s wake, beautiful mammatus clouds. These clouds feature pouch-like appendages that sometimes hang beneath the anvil of intense thunderstorms.

Below are some examples …

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