‘One of the most terrifying experiences of my life,’ recalls motorist on JRB when tornado formed

Published 5:08 pm Monday, June 19, 2023

Downed trees, severed power lines but no injuries from tornado-producing thunderstorm


Valerie Butler, a member of Smithfield’s Town Council, was on the James River Bridge heading home Friday afternoon when she saw the sky darken and a funnel form.

“It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life,” she said.

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Traffic was at a near standstill, and the closer she inched toward Isle of Wight County’s side of the four-lane bridge, the more the wind picked up. The light poles on the bridge started swaying.

“Visibility was almost zero. You couldn’t see anything directly in front of you and the hail was awful,” Butler said. “The wind was so strong I thought it was going to lift my car off the road.”

Then, she heard a loud noise and assumed it was the hail striking her car. When she finally made it home, she realized the wind had torn off her car’s gas cap cover.

The tornado Butler and other Isle of Wight County residents sighted near Carrollton had actually formed near Smithfield and traveled 8½ miles through the county, according to the National Weather Service.

According to NWS Meteorologist Ryan Rogers, the tornado ranked as an EF-0, the lowest intensity on the enhanced Fujita scale, with wind speeds of 70-75 mph. The twister, which formed when a severe thunderstorm blew through the county’s northern end, downed tree limbs and power lines but caused no injuries, according to Isle of Wight Emergency Services Coordinator Will Drewery.

The tornado touched down along MIll Swamp Road at the Pagan River 2 miles northwest of downtown Smithfield at 4:36 p.m. Two minutes later, the NWS issued a tornado warning for Smithfield.

The funnel, which spanned 75 to 100 yards at its widest, moved east through Windsor Castle Park and across Cypress Creek. Residents of Smithfield’s Waterford Oaks development on the east end of town saw the most extensive damage, according to the NWS report. The tornado then tracked east down New Towne Haven Lane near Carrollton Elementary School before dissipating over Chuckatuck Creek at 4:58 p.m.

About 25 minutes after the tornado warning ended, William and Julian Leaman heard a crack and lost power. A large limb had broken off a tree in their father, Eric’s, yard and struck a power pole on the opposite side of Mason Street in downtown Smithfield, cutting electricity to the entire block and obstructing travel in both directions.

The brothers called the fire department but were told to keep people away from the site until Dominion Energy crews arrived. The tree, William said, was removed between 9 p.m and 10 p.m., but power wasn’t restored until around 4:45 the next morning.

According to Dominion’s outage map, between 1,000 and 2,500 Isle of Wight County residents were without power as of 6:54 p.m. Friday. Roughly 50 remained in the dark as of Saturday morning and all had been restored by Sunday.

The bad weather forced the cancellation of the planned children’s night summer concert scheduled for 7 p.m. on the Main Street Square Stage in front of the Smithfield Times office.