Late tornado warning blamed on outdated radar Word of twister came in Va. city after it struck

August 08, 1993|By New York Times News Service

PETERSBURG, Va. -- No warning was issued before a tornado destroyed this city's historic district Friday because no volunteer weather observers spotted it in time and because an updated radar system had not yet been installed, a National Weather Service official said yesterday. The tornado killed four people and injured 190.

The weather service, a federal agency, issued the warning at 1:35 p.m., based on police reports of damage and sightings in a nearby town, said the official, Valerie J. Thompson, a meteorologist in Sterling, Va.

Mayor Rosalyn R. Dance of Petersburg said at a news conference yesterday morning, "There was a tornado warning, but it reached us at least five minutes after the tornado had hit."

But City Manager Valerie A. Lemmie said that while the city had warning sirens, "all of this was so quick and so fast that even if you had heard them, you would not have known what to do."

The tornado appeared to have touched down first in the recently restored Old Town historic district and veered north into the Pocahontas residential neighborhood, damaging about four dozen businesses and injuring 30 people, two of them seriously.

It then skittered across Interstate 95, plowing into a shopping mall in the upscale suburb of Colonial Heights, where it killed three people and injured scores, and then briefly raced down Interstate 295, causing accidents and injuring several people..

The fourth victim was killed about four miles away.

A Doppler radar, which measures the rotation of winds inside a thunderstorm and might have detected the tornado, is scheduled for installation near here later this year, Ms. Thompson said.

The conventional radar now deployed here is less useful in predicting tornadoes because it measures the reflection of radar waves from rain droplets and hail, she said.

While Oklahoma and other Midwestern states in what is known as Tornado Alley have had Doppler radars since the late 1970s, the systems are only now being installed in mid-Atlantic states where twisters are relatively rare. Virginia averages only eight tornadoes a year, most of them in sparsely populated rural areas where they do little damage, Ms. Thompson said.

But Ms. Lemmie, who was in the historic district when the tornado hit, said that heavy rain at the time of the tornado would have made it hard to hear any sirens.

Buildings began to tumble again yesterday at the site of one of the Civil War's most famous sieges, as crews began demolishing structures left dangerously unstable by the tornado. Architects and engineers familiar with the area's history directed the process and tried to avoid tearing down the oldest of the one- to three-story brick rowhouses, some of which were built before the American Revolution.

The winds destroyed much of the Appomattox Iron Works, a collection of two dozen buildings in which peanut shellers, saw mill blades and other equipment were manufactured from the mid-19th century until World War II.

Local businessmen had restored the area and reopened it as a tourist attraction four years ago.

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