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Sudden impact

Weather phenomenon known as a microburst blasts four-block area in Danville with winds up to 90 mph

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Storm

Men work Friday morning to remove a downed tree after Thursday's severe storm in the Westover area of Danville.

Bernie and Julie Francisco were watching TV in their house off of Blair Loop Road in the Westover area when the power went out. When they looked out the window a few seconds later, they saw something that terrified them: a huge tree falling toward their house. 

They jumped up and raced to their basement. They didn’t hear the tree slam into the corner of their roof or any of the other huge trees cracking as they plummeted to the ground. 

“We were just afraid and ran so fast we didn’t really have time to hear anything,” Julie said. 

It was all over in a matter of about 30 seconds: a microburst — a weather phenomenon that causes straight-line winds between 70 and 90 mph — nailed a roughly four-block area in the Westover neighborhood of the city Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service reported. The microburst uprooted and felled massive trees, caused property damage to houses and vehicles, and caused multiple power outages, some lasting into Friday for many in the affected region. 

The impacted roads include Wills Street, Charlotte Avenue, Brook Circle, Shumate Street and Shady Lane, the National Weather Service reported. 

Reggie Roakes, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, explained a microburst occurs when a storm takes in a considerable amount of energy and gains significant upward momentum, all while the atmosphere is relatively stagnant. When the environment can no longer support the storm's energy, a sudden downdraft propels toward the ground below. 

“All that energy suddenly comes collapsing down,” Roakes said. 

As it approaches the ground, the wind changes directions, going outward in straight-lines. Roakes compared it to a water balloon falling and popping, suddenly spraying water in all directions. 

"It pushes outward... you see that outward explosion, expansion," he said. 

Storm

After a microburst downed trees and power lines in a four-block section of the Westover area on Thursday afternoon, contractors and workers from Danville Utilities worked to fix poles and remove trees throughout the evening Thursday and during the day Friday.

A flurry of activity marked the damaged area throughout the day on Friday. Contractors assessed damage, gave quotes and worked on removing trees as quickly as they could; neighbors sat on porches to watch or toured the damage and checked on each other; and Danville Utilities and Xfinity workers tried to clear trees and debris from the power lines so they could restore power to the area. 

Root balls taller than the average person jutted from the ground all throughout the area. Tree branches and leaves lay scattered along the ground and the road, and an open, empty mailbox lay on the ground, separated from its stand, next to a twisted, fallen tree trunk. 

Walnuts from a giant walnut tree that managed to remain upright through the storm had blown as far as 75 yards away in the wind. 

Four utility poles were broken during the storm, leaving more than 5,000 Danville Utilities customers in Danville and Pittsylvania County without power, the city reported. 

Residents throughout the area said they couldn't actually hear the trees falling over the noise made by the wind, rain, and in some cases, hail. 

“The wind noise was like that freight train noise,” Bernie said. 

Moments before the microburst hit, Sam Brown was outside getting his mail when he saw the wind start to lift the rear of his pick-up truck. He made it inside, but the fences on both sides of his house fell, one of them on top of two of his cars. 

“It was a very scary situation,” he said. 

Cindy Giles had just returned from the grocery store when her car started rocking in the wind, leaving her unsure if she should go inside or wait it out. She decided to go inside, getting soaked in the process. Trees fell in her front and back yard not too long after. 

“It was just scary,” she said. 

George Elliott, who works with Dobson Pest Control, was doing an inspection in Roxboro, North Carolina, when his wife called to tell him about the storm. At first, he didn’t think it could be so bad. 

“I looked outside and the sky was clear and the sun was shining,” he said. 

When he got home, he had to park his truck down the road because a jumble of fallen trees blocked his path home. Just one tree fell in his yard, missing his house. 

“It could have been so much worse,” he said. 

Storm

Bark was peeled back from a pine tree that fell in front of a house off Charlotte Avenue.

Tim Phelps, who lives on a gravel court past Charlotte Avenue, received a call from his wife urging him to come home from his security job. When he arrived, he was surprised at what he found: multiple fallen trees leaning against his house, but they somehow fell gently, causing minimal damage. 

“I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” he said. 

Phelps has seen more storm damage in the last year than he had in the previous 21 years living in the area. Tropical Storm Michael, which struck last October, killed some of his animals and toppled trees in his yard. 

“I still hadn’t got cleaned up from the last time,” he said while cleaning up damage from this storm. 

In April 2018, Phelps stood on his porch and watched as a tornado swirled, causing significant damage in the very same area in Westover. That tornado caused damage at the home of Bernie and Julie Francisco, but then they lost only a few trees, which didn’t fall too close to their house. 

"This is much worse," Julie Francisco said while standing in her yard, full of downed trees. 

Storm

A mailbox managed to remain standing amidst a mangled mess of fallen branches and trees that resulted from Thursday afternoon’s microburst in the Westover are of Danville.

Microbursts usually don’t last more than a minute or two or affect a very large area, and they are very difficult to predict. 

“It’s hard to exactly know until it’s just about happening,” Roakes said. 

Microbursts occur somewhat commonly further south, he said, but they often go unacknowledged and undiagnosed. 

While storms brought heavy rain and wind throughout North Carolina and Virginia Thursday, Roakes said this was the only microburst that occurred in the region. 

Danville's Public Works Department announced early Friday afternoon that for the next three weeks they are waiving volume and weight restrictions for collection of tree debris. 

While they will collect limbs and cuttings, they cannot accept root balls or tree stumps, the department reported. 

Of the 400 customers who still didn’t have power early Friday afternoon, the city reported that most — if not all — of them should have it restored by the end of the day Friday. 

Community development inspectors were to perform a street-by-street inspection of houses in the area during the day Friday, the city reported. 

Storm

Sprawled along the ground in between Charlotte Avenue and Will Street, this massive tree was felled by the 90 mph wind that hit the Westover area of Danville on Thursday afternoon.

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Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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