Side rain sheets, a roaring rumble, and at least five buildings left in ruins and many more damaged.
That’s what some Radford residents experienced late on a Monday night 35 years ago this month, minutes after Indiana’s Keith Smart hit a game-winning shot to wrap up March Madness.
The National Weather Service confirmed the following day that an F-1 tornado with winds of 100 mph struck late in the evening of March 30, 1987 in South Radford along Rock Road, 17th Street, Wadsworth Street and Allen Street .
This tornado in the New River Valley is not one that seems to be remembered often. I was unaware of this until meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg asked me in the fall if I could find any information about it in the archives of the Roanoke Times. I’m sure some of you reading this may remember it, maybe you were touched by it.
The 1987 tornado, according to an article in the Roanoke Times & World-News, destroyed four RadVa Corp. buildings, leveled a two-story Masonic lodge, and damaged about 20 homes. It damaged the roof and guttering of the Radford Town Schools Administration Building and smashed the windows of apartments in Willow Woods.
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(One of the reporters who worked on this story was a much younger Laurence Hammack, my colleague from the Roanoke Times today.)
Severe storms are currently on the rise across the country, as they often are at this time of year. Texas experienced a tornado outbreak on Monday, with severe storms moving into Louisiana and Mississippi on Tuesday.
This same system will affect our region with showers and thunderstorms on Wednesday. The greatest threat of severe storms will be south and east of our region where there is more instability, but a spreading cold front will provide enough lift with shifting winds aloft for a few storms with strong winds are possible even close to us.
The weather map from late March 35 years ago reveals a somewhat similar dynamic weather pattern that was much more widely known for a late season snowstorm from the lower Mississippi River valley to the Great Lakes.
In fact, my location in northeast Arkansas at the time (I was in high school) received 3 inches of wet snow from the same storm system that spawned the tornado in Radford.
A cold front stretched from the Florida Panhandle east of Kentucky east of the Great Lakes that morning, pushing slowly eastward. Multiple waves of low pressure moved up this cold front.
Temperatures ahead of the cold front were not extremely hot, from 50 to below 60, but dropped considerably behind, hence widespread snow to the west. So a definite thermal boundary was in play, though probably not very unstable, given those kind of mild but not extremely hot surface temperatures.
A telltale sign of what may have helped spawn a tornado were the east-southeast winds represented by the wind barbs in Roanoke and also in Raleigh, North Carolina. With south to southwest winds at the 500 millibar (about 18,000 feet) level, this could indicate a strong deflection profile, which could have provided strong rotation to any storm updrafts that formed.
This would fall into the category of high-shear, low-instability severe weather events that occasionally occur in our region in late winter and spring.
The cold front that triggered the Radford tornado caused an abrupt change in the weather pattern, so much so that the Roanoke and New River valleys were covered in about half a foot of snow in early April a week earlier. later, a storm that dumped much more. quantities and caused widespread power outages just to our west.
Given events like the Pulaski tornado 11 years ago that damaged more than 300 homes, an EF-3 tornado that leveled two homes in southern Franklin County three years ago, and the fear of tornado in Blacksburg last August 31 When a low-hanging rotation associated with the remnants of Hurricane Ida briefly scratched the surface a few times, many regional residents felt that once-rare tornadoes are becoming more common in our region.
There may be large-scale climatic reasons that make this possible, but the central question that must first be answered is whether tornadoes are in fact becoming more frequent locally or whether they have always occurred on occasion. and are now more detectable and better documented.
Blacksburg’s situation late last summer might not have been easily noticed without modern Doppler radar and a curious Virginia Tech meteorology student tracking the early stages of the mesocyclone that would eventually pass overhead. of its campus.
Many brief, weak tornadoes recently recorded in our area likely would not have been counted as tornadoes without modern radar and intensive post-storm surveys.
The 1987 tornado in Radford suggests, at least, that significant tornadoes have occurred in the New River Valley before, just as having six deaths in two probable 1890s tornadoes in Roanoke and Salem seems to belie any idea that tornadoes are a recent development in the Roanoke Valley.
Thus, whether tornadoes locally increase in frequency and intensity is an open question that can only be answered with current and future observation, as modern procedures for identifying and documenting tornadoes have less 30 years old and are widely used.
What Radford in 1987 and Pulaski in 2011 and almost Blacksburg last year make clear is that our region is not magically protected by mountains, and we need to take tornadoes seriously even if our region is not not as often affected as many to the south. and west.
Weather Journal appears on Wednesdays.