A line of storms that spawned a tornado that destroyed homes in Franklin County and reports of tornado activity to the west and south of Richmond had brought periods of high winds and heavy downpours, but few reports of damage, to the metro region as of Friday night.
At 7:10 p.m., several truck drivers reported seeing a funnel cloud on Interstate 64 between Charlottesville and Richmond, according to the National Weather Service. The sighting was reported in Shannon Hill, which is in Goochland County, close to Louisa County, where dispatchers answered the emergency calls about the possible tornado.
Less than an hour later, a trained spotter confirmed “a tornado on the ground with power flashes in the 6200 block of Frederick Hall” Road in Louisa, the weather service said. That is about 17 miles northeast of the first reports.
In Brunswick County, law enforcement reported a tornado at 6:50 p.m. between Brodnax and Lawrenceville, about 80 miles southwest of Richmond. Tops of trees were twisted off and structures were damaged along Evans Creed Road.
The storm then snapped trees several miles northeast of Disputanta in Prince George County at 7:57 p.m. The National Weather Service also received a report of a tornado sighting from that area.
As of Friday night, reported damage was limited in the metro area to three downed trees each in Richmond and Chesterfield County, and a tree limb on a car in Church Hill. About 200 customers in the Richmond and Tri-Cities region were without power as of 11 p.m., according to Dominion Energy.
The region had been under a tornado watch, and the cumulative rainfall throughout the day may not reach flood levels until later.
At least two homes were destroyed and multiple downed trees reported south of Roanoke in Franklin County, where a tornado touched down Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service.
The Franklin tornado was reported at 10:35 a.m. over Sontag, just south of Rocky Mount, moving northeast at 45 mph, according to the weather service. There also were reports of quarter-sized hail and flying debris.
A house on Windy Ridge Road and another on Fishburn Mountain Road were leveled. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office had not received any reports of injuries related to the storm as of Friday evening.
Delores Anderson was on her front porch on Windy Ridge when she felt the wind and knew the tornado was approaching.
“I heard it coming and took off to the basement and started praying,” said Anderson, 63, standing outside the rubble of her home of 40 years.
The wind sounded like a train, she said. A 20-plus-foot RV in the driveway slammed into the brick garage and barrelled through a fence and down the hill in her backyard. Towels and a saucepan, a toilet seat and a can of cooking oil were strewn across the lawn.
“We’ve got a lot of friends and neighbors that have helped,” Anderson said. “I’m just blessed to be alive.”
An official survey from meteorologists will have to take place for official confirmation and to determine the tornado’s strength, said Vance Joyner, meteorologist and forecaster with the weather service in Blacksburg. That could happen Saturday, he said.
Widespread reports of downed trees and power lines in Newport News and York County hint at possible tornadoes there, as well.
This was part of a larger system responsible for three days of severe weather between the Texas Panhandle and the beaches of North Carolina.
Preliminary reports from the weather service in North Carolina said there was roof and structure damage in one neighborhood in Chatham County outside of Siler City on Friday afternoon. News outlets reported at least one house near Interstate 85 outside of Hillsborough in Orange County was severely damaged by winds that were thought to have resulted from a tornado.
To the east, several locations reported wind gusts approaching and in excess of 50 mph.
From a weather satellite’s vantage point on Friday afternoon, the system looked like a large swirl centered over Tennessee. A long, towering arc of thunderstorms boiled from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mid-Atlantic, steered by winds racing at 70 to 100 mph.
Closer to the ground, a strong breeze coming in off the Atlantic Ocean kept a steady flow of humid air and low, gray clouds billowing over central Virginia. On-and-off peeks of sun pushed temperatures high enough to fuel thunderstorms.
That dynamic combination of heat, moisture and wind shaped the otherwise ordinary storms into lines of severe weather that swept across the state.
Forecasters expected a cold front to shove the strong thunderstorms offshore by daybreak on Saturday, but a bit of rain could lag behind over the Easter weekend as low pressure spins over the Ohio Valley.
Expect a mix of clouds and sun in the Richmond area on Saturday, with a chance for afternoon and evening showers.
As the storms approached Friday, many schools across the region closed early. Some districts already had scheduled time off Friday because of Good Friday, but most in the region decided to dismiss early.
Chesterfield’s public schools were closed Friday except for Bellwood Elementary School, which is year-round and dismissed three hours early. Henrico County’s schools had a scheduled half-day, and Richmond schools were already scheduled to dismiss early. Hanover County, which did not have scheduled time off, let students go two hours early.
Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie County, Goochland, King William County and Petersburg schools all dismissed early.
Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia State universities also closed before the storm hit.
The weather service asks people to stay safe, but when possible send reports of wind damage, hail, flooding or other damage to any of its social media pages, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (866) 215-4324.
Times-Dispatch staff writers John Boyer, Ali Rockett and Justin Mattingly contributed to this report, which includes information from The Roanoke Times and The Associated Press.