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Remembering the 1990 deadly Augusta County tornado

The only deadly tornado in our local history
The only deadly tornado in our local history
Published: May. 4, 2022 at 5:36 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2022 at 11:28 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA SPRINGS, Va. (WHSV) - Official tornado records go back to 1950, however we do have newspaper reports of storm damage before that date.

Chief Meteorologist Aubrey Urbanowicz has traced Shenandoah Valley tornadoes back to at least 1847. The 1990 Augusta county tornado is the only deadly tornado in our history, that we know of.

Strong tornadoes are not common in our area but they can happen. On the evening of May 4th, 1990, Chief Wayne Martin with the Craigsville fire department responded to a call.

“The call came in, debris in the road at Augusta Springs.”

Martin says they typically respond to a lot of flooding calls so this one was different.

When Martin arrived there were, “Houses with the roofs off, a trailer upside down, trash everywhere.”

The tornado formed in western Augusta county over Big North Mountain. It came into Augusta Springs, and crossed right in between two homes. Eventually it crossed a 2,500′ ridge over Little North Mountain, and moved into Swoope where it killed two people.”

So this also busts the old myth that tornadoes don’t happen in the mountains, because they do.

Here’s the storm summary from the National Weather Service, there is a photo gallery at the bottom of this page.

From NWS
From NWS(NWS)

Two men were killed, Ronald Patterson and Robert Strickler. Four other people that were also inside the trailer were injured, but survived.

The only two businesses in Augusta Springs were destroyed.

Martin says, “There was no warning of any kind”

Barbara Watson is Meteorologist with the National Weather Service and was out of our local Washington, D.C. office at the time. She explains how poor the radar coverage was at the time.

“We had very poor radar coverage, the radar site was all the way across the state. We were about 2-3 years away from having the doppler radar.”

She surveyed the storm damage to determine how powerful the tornado was. Watson remembers this tornado specifically because it was her first solo tornado damage survey.

“Seeing the damage of the mobile home where there were fatalities , that was tough, says Watson. I talked to some people there.

Watson said the damage was so bad, “I actually had to have some of the residents describe what had been there, what had been destroyed to make sense out of the damage.”

Ten people were injured, and two men lost their lives when the tornado destroyed their trailer.

The tornado was rated an F-2. Watson said she estimated the winds to be at their peak between 125-130 mph.

Augusta Springs to Swoope
Augusta Springs to Swoope(whsv)

The path was 7 miles long between Augusta springs and Swoope. The width of the damage was about 25 yards.

Martin said that a lot of community members came out to help clean up the damage, and to help the victims of the storm.

The church in Augusta Springs was so badly damage it had to be destroyed. Officials were afraid that kids or other people would wander into the church, and someone would get hurt. The church was burned down to prevent that, but the bell was saved.

The bell still stands in Craigsville, as a reminder of the storm.

The bell from the Augusta Springs Church that was damaged. The bell is now in Craigsville
The bell from the Augusta Springs Church that was damaged. The bell is now in Craigsville(Aubrey Urbanowicz)

DAMAGE

The tornado touched down in Augusta Springs near Augusta Springs Road and Estaline Valley Road.
  • Destroyed two homes and five mobile homes
  • Minor to major damage to 12 additional homes
  • Damaged the People’s Baptist Church so heavily and moved the foundation, it was burned down after the storm
  • Destroyed the Augusta Springs Volunteer Fire Department
  • General Store was also heavily damaged
  • Five farms were damaged
  • 6 vehicles destroyed
  • 2 Deaths
  • 10 injuries

Newspaper reports say that the trailer on Trimbles Mill Road was “ripped from its foundation and slammed into the ground 25 yards away.” National Weather Service Meteorologist Barbara Watson was quoted at the time and describing the damage in Augusta Springs. The tornado when it first touched down left a path a mile long and 50-100 yards wide in Augusta Springs. The tornado lifted briefly as it went over Little North Mountain at 2,500′ and then dropped again on the other side moving into the Swoope area.

Personal take: Reading the newspaper reports and some of the quotes from the National Weather Service, this was certainly an unexpected and unusual event in an area with so much terrain. There was not warning on the storm and the radar coverage was basically nothing. I think it was more unbelievable at the time that a tornado of this magnitude could happen here.

We know much more about tornadoes in an area with a lot of terrain, as our area is. We now know that rotating storms can strengthen going down a mountain, which is what this one did. The vortex can weaken going up a mountain- which is also what this tornado did. It was passed on across generations that the mountains “protect” us from tornadoes. A tornado will do what it wants to do, regardless of rivers, buildings, terrain. Mountains do not protect us. The terrain can alter the environment for strong storms and tornadoes, but we have a long history of local tornadoes. They can happen anywhere in our area.

ARCHIVE FOOTAGE

Raw footage from WHSV that aired in 1990

Archive footage from WHSV of the damage to Augusta Springs

PHOTO GALLERY

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