Friday, March 11, 2011

Big wind was a'coming

A wind shear or burst or some kind of big wind blew through downtown Salem yesterday afternoon, knocking out plate-glass windows at Charlotte's Web Antiques Mall on Main Street, and twisting and smashing half-a-dozen or so 50-year-old trees around Salem City Hall and elsewhere.

From our newspaper office on West Main Street we could see something bad coming: a really black cloud from the east near Sugar Loaf Mountain, then total whiteness as blinding rain hit. Then it was gone.

I remember the first really bad storm I was in the middle of, during those 1990s when we remembered the year by the type of weather: Blizzard of '93, Storm of '93, Ice Storm of '94, Flood of '95...before I lost rack. Anyway, it was the first week of June and I was driving south on U.S. 29 from Madison Heights in Amherst County on my way to interview families of minor league baseball players. I had noticed a dark green, almost black, layer to the west with a white strip of sky underneath. I stopped in the local drugstore to buy black-and-white film – yes, we were still using film in 35 mm cameras in those days – and in the five minutes I was inside the storm hit. Rain and wind blew those really heavy double glass doors inward. I remember store manager Ray Puckett running over and bracing himself against them to hold them closed.

By the time I got back on the road and was crossing the Carter Glass Bridge, it looked like a giant had chewed up spinach and spit it out all over the highway. Those were shredded leaves from millions of trees in Lynchburg.

The 5-minute storm had toppled at least three of the old, tall steeples on downtown churches, blown down 75-year-old trees in a west-to-east direction, and ripped off power lines. I detoured through the cemetery because roads to the baseball stadium were blocked, talked my way around fire trucks and when I got to the stadium, found the players, families and most of the staff gone, with 6 inches of hail everywhere. The outfield fence was missing sections. I learned later one of the game announcers had been trapped in the press box during the storm. It was located on the roof of the grandstand in those days, and he couldn't get to the steps to get out until after the storm blew itself out.

We lived in an all-electric house in a semi-rural area, and had no electricity for a couple of days. Without electricity, we also had no water because we were on a well. Our children took off to stay with friends, and Bill and I drove to a writers' conference at John Tyler Community College in Petersburg. Ironically, it had been postponed in March because of the Blizzard of '93.

We could track the path of the wind for at least 50 miles as we drove along Rt. 460 because of the slain trees. There was at least $35-million in damage to buildings in downtown Lynchburg. It took a couple of those churches more than two years to get their insurance claims and rebuild the steeples. But it wasn't a tornado, according to the National Weather Service. Just a wind shear.

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