Before cyclone winds reached down in Suffolk to throw trucks into buildings, pound well-built homes to matchsticks and crumple tin roofing like it was tin foil, a warm, moist front settled over Hampton Roads on Sunday.
Alone it would have been nothing. But the cold, low-pressure mass of air that moved in behind it guaranteed something nasty. Monday morning's brief newspaper forecast was on the right track: "Evening severe storms."
Meteorologist Keith Lynch watched the conditions develop from the National Weather Service office in Wakefield. Heavy cold air plunged to the ground and collided with warmer air rising higher. Then, around 3 p.m., above northeast North Carolina, a storm cell started to develop out in front of what meteorologists call the "squall line," the front edge of a cold front that typically pushes along a row of storms.
When that happens, Lynch said, "They pretty much have minds of their own."
The violent signatures of a tornado began to appear.
The first National Weather Service severe thunderstorm warning went out at 3:03 p.m., for an area from northwest Hertford County in North Carolina into parts of Suffolk. At 3:11, the weather service upgraded that to a tornado warning for Suffolk.
Radar picked up the first signs of a tornado — the brilliant colors that depict fast and contrasting winds — at 3:46 p.m. about two miles south of U.S. Route 58 in the southwest corner of Suffolk. At 3:56 p.m. the radar showed cyclone winds right over the highway a few miles outside of downtown, forcing drivers to pull over and take cover as winds sheared the tops of massive pine trees.
The Suffolk tornado ultimately rated a "strong" EF-3, according to the National Weather Service. That includes wind speeds up to 165 mph. The tornado, a quarter-mile thick, burned a 10-mile path through the city.
Between 3:46 and 4:21 p.m., National Weather Service radar picked up 10 instances of tornado-like winds. Several of the tornado hits on the radar lie right on top of worst destruction in the city.
Screaming at more than 136 mph, cyclone winds tore through just north of downtown moments after 4 p.m. Cars levitated and spun in the air, passengers said. Freedom Plaza, a shopping center on Godwin Boulevard, was stripped down to its metal studs and littered with cars tossed through its wall. Several homes in the Burnetts Mill neighborhood appeared as if a giant sledgehammer came down on them.
There are no gauges in that area to measure wind speed, but the destruction carried the hallmarks of an EF-3 tornado, capable of lifting vehicles and damaging well-built structures.
The winds didn't wreak that kind of destruction all through the city, but they weren't dead yet. They resurfaced with devastating impact at 4:21 p.m in Driver.
Driver is surrounded by forest to the south and west and farmland to the east, but the tornado seemed to save one last punch for the historic community's crossroads, where the Driver Variety Store was pushed over like a house of cards. A building half a block from the store had its side ripped off, giving it the appearance of life-size dollhouse.
Suffolk clearly took the brunt of this storm.
Its raw power may have been confined to a narrow path — aerial photos show a trail of exploded homes through Burnetts Mill and Hill Point Farms, while houses two doors down suffered no damage. But the cold front moving up from North Carolina that helped create the storm worked in a broader stroke.
The National Weather Service confirmed six tornadoes in all. In addition to Suffolk, weaker twisters were spotted in Brunswick County, Colonial Heights, the Claremont area of Surry County, the Carrsville area in Isle of Wight County and on the Gloucester-Mathews county line.
Lynch said Monday's weather was historically rare for Hampton Roads.
It was the strongest cyclone-related storm since a series of 18 tornadoes, centered on Petersburg, broke out in four hours in 1993. Those storms killed four people, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. A 1929 storm killed 22 people in western Virginia.
Most of Virginia is typically shielded from the potential clash of warm and cold fronts by the mountains in the western part of the state. The peaks disrupt air masses, Lynch said, keeping tornado ingredients at bay.
Occasionally a front can move up more from the south, like the cold, low pressure mass that arrived Monday afternoon. The origin and direction of the front can be seen in the southwest to northeast track the tornado traced across Suffolk.
Because of southeast Virginia's distance from the mountains, it is more vulnerable to those southern fronts, Lynch said. Monday's was the 15th tornado to hit Suffolk since 1950, the second-highest total in the state.