By Chris White

Weather Blog: Since Fredericksburg resides "in the seam" between the Richmond VA and Washington DC media markets this blog is a look at the weather from a Fredericksburg-centric point of view.

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Present and past encounters with tropical systems

Our quiet sunny weather over the next few days provides a tremendous contrast to what the Gulf Coast states are experiencing this morning due to Hurricane Isaac.  High winds, flooding, downed trees, and tornadoes are all on the docket for our southern neighbors and we should keep them in our hearts and minds as this storm pushes inland and up the Mississippi River valley.  But we can’t forget that the Fredericksburg area has experienced each of these tropically related factors from previous storms.  Thus I’ve pulled together some of the ‘Burg’s history with such systems for today’s post from various sources, including previous articles in the Free Lance-Star.

October 1942:  Although most readers won’t remember this unnamed storm it actually exceeded Agnes (1972) for flooding on the Rappahannock by cresting at 41 feet, which is 27 feet above flood stage. Ten to twelve inches of rain fell between Warrenton and Fredericksburg during this event and the river at one point was rising at a rate of 3 feet per hour.  For an example of the human toll from this storm 6,000 (of the 10,000 residents of the city at that time) reported to the courthouse for typhoid immunizations in the aftermath.

Track and landfall of the October 1942 tropical storm.

Agnes, June 1972:  Any mention of tropical storm effects on Fredericksburg has to include this wicked storm which flooded large parts of Virginia.  The Rappahannock River crested at 39.1 feet at City Dock and many businesses along Caroline Street suffered flood damage.   Across the river the low-lying sections of Falmouth were completely inundated by the raging river.  I have also heard anecdotes about the river rising to almost touch the bottom of the Falmouth bridge, which provides an astonishing image of how full of water the river valley was.

Isabel, Sept 2003:  I remember the downed trees and widespread power outages from this storm.  Only 2-3 inches of rain were recorded during the tempest but the winds were the main part of the story.  Quantico reported sustained winds of 47 mph with gusts up to 67, and not far down the Potomac River the sustained winds were much higher.  Many of the trees that were downed weren’t ripped apart…they were completely uprooted by the strong northeasterly winds combined with a generally wet ground from previous rains.  I  remember a large number of trees lying horizontally with their root balls vertical.  The resulting power outages created a lot of spoiled food and uncomfortable nights sleeping without fans or air conditioning, but perhaps the biggest effect of the loss of power was that – according the Virginia Dept of Environmental Quality – tens of millions of gallons of sewage dumped into the state’s rivers and eventually the Chesapeake Bay as pumping and treatment stations were helpless without electrical power.

Ivan, Sept 2004:  Tornadoes were the big Virginia story out of the remnants of this storm.  A veritable outbreak occurred the afternoon and evening of Sept 17th as the sun broke through the general overcast and provided the heating to create sufficient instability to go along with the low level wind shear (turning of the wind with height) that Ivan‘s remnants brought.  The survey by the Sterling National Weather Service Office illustrates the magnitude of that event just in their area of responsibility:

Tracks and Fujita-scale rating of Sept 2004 tornado outbreak

I happened to be out storm chasing that afternoon and snapped this picture of the wall cloud and funnel that resulted in the F3 tornado that hit the Remington area in Fauquier county that afternoon.

Top of the F3 tornado that hit Remington VA Sept 17th 2004. (The treeline obscured the bottom of the funnel.)

There have been other notable tropical systems that have affected the ‘Burg over the years but these four provide illustrations of the overall impacts that such storms have had.  Again, remember the folks along the Gulf Coast today and over the next few days as they experience much of the same.