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WEATHER JOURNAL: DERECHO 10TH ANNIVERSARY

A decade after the derecho: A word and a wind we will never forget

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derecho-2012-map

National Weather Service composite radar imagery shows the path of the June 2012 storm that brought high winds and power outages to the region.

It was a summer day unlike any other in our memory: June 29, 2012.

It could have just been the hottest average temperature day anyone ever experienced in Roanoke — a high of 104, a morning low of 84, averaging 94, 2 degrees hotter than biggest sizzler of the Dust Bowl era locally— if something even more profound, extreme and frightening hadn’t roared over the mountains near sunset, and added a Spanish-origin word that had been in meteorological use since the late 1800s to the lexicon of thousands.

Derecho.

“Neither Richard nor I took Spanish in school, however; derecho is one vocabulary word we will never forget,” wrote Mary Gayle Tunstall of Montvale in one of many e-mails solicited for reader derecho memories over the past few weeks.

“Derecho is still a bad word in my house,” added Sarah Barrett of southwest Montgomery County.

The derecho (pronounced duh-RAY-cho) was a long-lived “bow-echo” squall line that formed near Chicago and raced through the Ohio Valley, across the Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic region, enlarging and intensifying as it was fed by ballistic atmospheric instability on a record hot day.

Wind gusts topping 80 mph at times pushed dust and debris underneath turbulent clouds emitting oddly tinted lightning flashes but dropping almost no rain on the Roanoke Valley, while quickly pouring on some other places, shattering the sweltering fun of a summer Friday night a decade ago.

Following Roanoke’s hottest afternoon in 29 years, the tempest took the temperature down to 73 degrees by late evening, ending the day’s quest to be the hottest average-temperature day on record in the Star City, but it provided no lasting relief from the heat.

The mercury soared to 97 or above at Roanoke on eight of nine days that followed, three more times above 100, before the heat wave broke on July 10 — essentially for the remainder of the summer, with no remotely similar heat waves having happened in the decade since.

Rehydrating in the heat

Denise Clifton takes a drink of water with her meal from the Salvation Army while on the steps outside a mass feeding center at Roanoke Civic Center (now Berglund Center). Clifton, who lived near Towers Shopping Center, was without power days after the derecho of June 2012.

Jim Kent, then news director and anchor for WFIR radio, said the derecho “turned the Roanoke Valley into a tale of two cities — those with electricity, and those without. For those with power, life went on with only minor inconveniences. For others it became for a life-threatening emergency. … What turned this into a life-threatening emergency was the record heat wave that moved in behind that derecho.”

With slightly more than half our region lacking electricity in some of the worst lasting local heat since the 1930s, that’s why the 2012 derecho has been seared into the minds of so many as our region’s most memorable and impactful weather event of the 21st century to date.

“My main memory is the sweltering heat … hotter than the gates of hell and no electricity for five days, which meant no A/C in the 100-degree heat, no TV, internet, coffee maker, etc,” wrote Steve Hatchett of Roanoke. “Lost all food in the refrigerator. Yet I could see the street lights on at night one block away … frustration.

“To this day, every time the winds pick up and blow hard, I cringe.”

The story of the 2012 derecho in and around the Roanoke and New River valleys isn’t primarily about numbers or meteorological mechanics.

It is about the memories, experiences, sufferings and recovery of the people it affected, which, really, is all of us who were in its path that June evening a decade ago.

And, through weeks of simply asking readers to send in their memories, that is who we have recruited to tell the tale.

Toppled root ball

Charley Boswell still had the massive root ball of a toppled oak tree in his Raleigh Court yard in Roanoke a couple of weeks after the June 29, 2012, derecho.

‘Almost apocalyptic’

For many, it started with an odd look to the sky.

“I remember that the sky had gotten dark, but with that unsettling greenish tinge and sense of foreboding that always preceded tornadic storms in Texas,” wrote Sarah Barrett, who had returned to the New River Valley after living in the Lone Star State.

“I was driving down Williamson Road at the time the storm hit. The light in the sky was just weird, “ Patrick Beale of Salem observed, driving through an area hosting Star City Motor Madness, where many experienced the derecho outdoors.

“I actually saw the storm coming while watering my garden beds that evening,” wrote Ken Conklin of Daleville “I cannot repeat here what I said when I casually glanced at the western sky but derecho was not the word I used. What I observed looked like one of those Armageddon scenes from ‘Lord of the Rings’ with swirling black clouds and spectacular flashes of lightning moving toward me from the nearby mountains.”

But soon enough, it was all about the wind.

“The wind built up, and hit pretty quick,” Beale continued, describing the scene along Williamson Road. “It got dark, and transformers started to blow. People who had set up tents were hanging onto the tents, trying to prevent them from blowing away. It was wild in an almost apocalyptic way.”

“I became aware of the wind howling in a big gum tree near my Salem home,” wrote Frances Stebbins, once a religion writer for The Roanoke Times. “My cat woke up and looked frightened. I remembered experiencing a tornado when a young adult in Richmond, and I got up and took Dumplet, the cat, to my basement where we waited out the wind for several hours.”

“Winds became ferocious and, when I looked outside, a wrought iron chair from our patio was sideways and sailing through the air,“ recalled Darla Donald, living in Blacksburg. “At about the same time, our daughter screamed and her brother and I ran to her — to find a tree branch, that had broken through the brick outside wall behind her, hovering over her head where she sat. … Terror is not even the strongest word to describe the way we all three felt. “

“Our porch swing blew off and was destroyed, and trees and branches were coming down,” wrote Karen Loferski of Blacksburg.

Toppled tree at New Castle

A tree knocked over during the 2012 derecho sits on a house on Race Street in New Castle.

Erica Jones of Craig County says her family eats dinner on an outside deck almost all summer. On June 29, 2012, they could hear the ruckus coming, out of their view over the mountain. “Things were getting noisier and noisier and the trees on the west side of the house were swaying harder and harder, “ she said, as she finally ran inside. “The suddenness and the noise of wind and trees were both impressive.”

“As the derecho roared through, my wife looked out the window and saw the upper part of a black walnut tree near the house, with a two foot diameter trunk, just snap off and fly away,” said Steve Richter, of Botetourt County near Fincastle. His home managed to keep power, and “ a friend brought his chest freezer full of venison to our house. We ran an extension cord to it, but left [it] in the shade in driveway.”

“On the evening of the derecho I was in an upstairs room that has a skylight when there was such a loud noise I looked up expecting to see a huge plane flying directly over the skylight and very close,” recalled Sally Mook of Blacksburg, who also noted that trees “were swirling around and around as though being stirred by a gigantic invisible spoon.”

“Just as it became too dark to see clearly, we heard a very loud and sudden ‘snapping’ or ‘crunching’ sound throughout the entire neighborhood,” recalled Dave Stocker of Hollins, watching the storm unfold from his porch. “My immediate thought is that it sounded like hundreds of wooden pallets being simultaneously crushed. We didn’t realize until later that was the sound of just about every tree in our neighborhood that had been planted within the past 20 years snapping at the trunk. “

Bobby Kitts of Roanoke was coming out Towers Shopping Center to “doors sucked open by a vacuum-like pull of the storm” as the wind “whirled around the parking lot violently throwing paper and debris in swirling circles” and employees and customers hunkered in a “narrow cinder block corridor listening to the rage outside.”

Teresa Calhoun of Roanoke was putting clothes in the washer when: “BOOM! — the wind started howling. … I had never heard the wind blow like that! …. It looked like the wind was roaring up our street in a straight line. We watched trees, one after another, bending down to the ground.”

“There I was watching television when BANG the back door blew open,” wrote Jan Keister of Roanoke. “It was so powerful it shrieked.”

Cleaning up the debris

Andrew Morgan (center) and Josh Tiller, with Jacobs Tree Worx out of Vinton, clear trees off of a property on Holly Lane in Daleville on July 3, 2012.

Violent from the start

The experience was no less frightening in the heart of the city.

“The weather was hot — so hot — and the air was still,” remembered Lindsey Hull of Roanoke, who was with a group that moved from Corned Beef & Co. to Mill Mountain Tea & Coffee downtown. “Not long after we sat down with our coffee, the back door was yanked open and a young man blew in. ‘There’s a tornado out there!’ he yelled, running down the back hall into the belly of the coffee shop. … A tornado? No way. … One of the meteorologists on the wall-mounted TV was gesturing to a huge red curve, set to move across the entire area.”

Derecho on radar

Radar image of the 2012 derecho pushing into Virginia.

The widespread outflow wind — not a narrow tornadic spin — roared through. “Downtown looked shockingly different from the vibrant summer scene we had taken in only a few minutes before. Trees were down, lying across cars. Detritus lined the gutters”

Some endured the storm while trying to enjoy the great outdoors.

“While my husband and I were safe at home, my daughter and her three young children were camping on Little River with several other families when the derecho hit,’ wrote Hilda Dickerson of Willis. “It was the next day before we heard from them. They had thankfully taken shelter in a cabin. A tree fell on their tent. Men had to hike out to get chain saws to open the road.”

Similarly, Justin Hayes had driven from Radford to Eagle Rock to camp and fish with friends along the James River.

“My father had texted me that there was a strong storm coming, but I assumed he meant down towards Radford and I didn’t pay it any attention. … The storm rolled in on us and from the start, it was violent. The trees were cracking and making awful noises. We collectively made the decision that we should all head to the vehicle instead of waiting it out in our tents.“

Seth Martin lost a tent his family was camping in at Smith Mountain Lake. Four children, and eventually he also, took shelter in nearby structures, and his wife and newborn son did not reach the planned outing, blocked by a tree on the road. “Several of her reroutes to get home also were blocked by downed trees. She eventually got home and stayed in a downstairs doorway away from windows until the wind subsided. .. I bought a new tent.”

Steve Grubb of Roanoke regularly fishes Carvins Cove two to three days a week. On June 29, 2012, his electric trolling motor went out early in the afternoon and he went home. “Had I stayed on the lake I might not be here today. My little boat would have never stayed afloat in that wind.. Sometimes things just work out and it did for me.”

Jeff Worrell, a lifetime Appalachian Power employee and at the time the mayor of Pulaski, was attending an outdoor Eric Church benefit concert in Bluefield, West Virginia.

“Just before Eric Church took the stage my wife’s daughter said, ‘I think they’re going to have to stop the show, there’s a storm coming.’ She showed us a radar image on her iPhone. … The show was halted, the tornado sirens soon sounded, and we took shelter in a stairwell in a nearby building with the grandchildren.

“I called my supervisor back in Pulaski to ask him what the weather was there. He said, ‘It’s hot’. He had no idea what was happening one state away. Fifteen minutes later he called back ‘West Virginia has been destroyed, Virginia is being destroyed, we need everyone we can get right now!’”

It was “16 days and 1,500 broken poles later” before Worrell could return to something resembling regular life, with mixed social media reviews of the mayor’s performance helping restore power. At least Church rescheduled for later in the summer.

Derecho severe storm warnings

This map shows the progression of severe thunderstorm warnings as a fast-moving, high-wind squall line called a derecho moved across the Ohio Valley into the Mid-Atlantic on June 29, 2012.

Roads become mazes

The derecho turned a routine drive into a frightening carnival ride for others.

“I was driving home from work at Carilion Roanoke Memorial,” remembered Kyle Jones of Hardy. “The route home goes through the Coopers Cove area. I was about half way through Coopers Cove when the derecho started.” Jones said he “could see limbs flying through the air” and witnessed a “huge ball of fire from trees lying on a power line.“ Eventually his path was blocked by a large oak tree across a road, and he ended up parking his truck and walking two to three miles to his home. “I had to climb over or duck under five large trees that were blocking the road each at a different location.”

Similarly, Jane Echols Johnston of New Castle, was caught on curvy Virginia 42 after a meal at Locust Mountain Grill in New Castle when “about one third of the way up, in the ‘s’ turns, trees started falling in all directions. I could see them tumbling over beside me and behind me. Scared to death, I didn’t know whether to stop or keep going. I crept on. I’m pretty sure my car was the last one up the mountain until good Samaritans with chain saws and VDOT cleared the road.”

“When an extremely strong gust blew a substantial sign, on the opposite of Williamson, off its foundation, knocking down power lines and sending sparks flying, David and I sprinted to the car,” said Ron Ayers of Roanoke, who was watching the car show along with his brother David from Richmond. “The route we had to take to get home proved to be akin to a maze. The wind knocked down trees into streets all along the planned way home, so we had to alter the route frequently” back to the Crystal Spring area cross town.

Some people only noticed the storm’s full effects after it had struck.

Janet Spahr, now of Midlothian, lived in Blacksburg at the time, and was at a concert at the Moss Center that evening when “the lights dimmed a few times but came back on.” Later, driving home, “we started noticing branches down from wind damage.“ Her friend noted that she didn’t see any lights on anywhere around. Five white pine trees Spahr’s father had planted in the 1940s had been snapped.

Steve Murray of Roanoke didn’t know much of the storm, working in the basement of the J.C. Penney store at Tanglewood Mall. “Being in such a fortified location I heard nothing of the carnage outside. Power never went out. Only when I drove home to my South Roanoke neighborhood did the destruction become visible. Trees down, wires down, quite a mess. If it wasn’t for my neighbors sawing up limbs and debris I wouldn’t have gotten home.”

“I did not realize how damaging the weather had been until the next morning when I was driving up I-81 to DC and stopped for gas at exit 205, and there was no power at the gas station,” recalled Peggy Layne of Blacksburg. “Fortunately I was able to make it to a functioning gas station further up the highway! Then I learned that my parents in Lynchburg were without power, which lasted for a week as I recall.”

Derecho exposes counties' emergency service problems

An Appalachian Power Co. crew member works on a power line on Colonial Avenue near Virginia Western Community College several days after the derecho.

Some residents were out of town, but still affected.

Gene Gardner of Blacksburg was at a family reunion in Indiana, another region hard hit by the derecho. “The next morning we got phone calls from our neighborhood east of Blacksburg. A very large healthy ash tree in our front yard had blown down, crushing our mailbox and blocking the street. It also tore large areas of screen on our porch.” After staying in Indiana several more days, Gardner returned to Blacksburg, his home still without power.

A woodworking friend turned a piece of the fallen ash tree into salt and pepper shakers for Gardner.

“I was scheduled to attend a convention in Austin during July 2012, and I was not looking forward to the heat,” said Roanoke City Councilman Bill Bestpitch. “The derecho hit the night before we left. We did not lose power, the flight departed as scheduled, and we did not realize that the storm had been so severe. We followed the news throughout our trip, and the difference in temperature between Roanoke and Austin was never more than one or two degrees. All the air conditioners were working in Austin, and people were in a much better mood than those with no electricity at home.”

Marvin Huddleston of Roanoke was at his second home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when his best friend called about power being out in the Roanoke area. “In a kidding way I told him I would cut my A/C up at the beach from 68 to 70 so I could suffer too,” Huddleston said. “That afternoon my A/C melted down and it took me five days and $6,000 to cool my beach house down again.”

Others had just arrived in the area when it hit.

Bonnie McFie, now of Hardy, came on Saturday, June 30, looking for property near Smith Mountain Lake to relocate to from New Jersey. “We were staying at the Halesford Harbour Inn in Moneta. When we arrived the inn was completely booked, which was extremely unusual. As it turned out, it was the only motel for miles with electricity! … When you drove around in all directions of Smith Mountain Lake trees were actually cut in half horizontally, as if sawed off. The trees and landscape looked broken. “

Three months to the day after the derecho, McFie experienced Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey on Oct. 29, losing power for two weeks.

Refuge in a hotel

Leslie Matney opens the door to her hotel room at the Ramada Inn off Franklin Road Southwest in Roanoke. With her is her dog Gus, and behind her is her mother, Lynne Fields, 79. The family had to book a hotel room after the power went out during the derecho that struck Roanoke in June 2012. They planned to celebrate July Fourth at the hotel. The hotel in 2022 is closed and is awaiting demolition.

“I’ll always remember the day I moved to Roanoke (having grown up here, this was a return to the area for me and my family) because it was the day of the derecho,” recalled Mark Feldmann, whose family was relocating from Charlottesville. “Our first week in Roanoke was spent without power or air conditioning. … Most of our new neighbors had evacuated to cooler places, leaving the steady drone of power generators as the dominant sound in our new neighborhood. It was an unforgettable ‘welcome to Roanoke’ memory.”

“I was in the middle of moving to Roanoke, having sold my house in Harrisonburg,” remembered Sue Williams. “Stopped off for a couple of nights at Shenandoah National Park, staying in a lodge. It was dramatic, watching the storm approach, coming through the mountains, and a noisy night. … I drove home down the Parkway, dodging downed trees and branches and spooked animals.”

“My now husband and I were getting ready to move to Roanoke; me from Christiansburg, and him from Crozet,” wrote Amanda Hogberg. They were eating at Kabuki in Christiansburg when the storm hit. “The hoods over the tables were making terrible noise, and the power went out. Kabuki management asked us to move to the floor as the storm was right overhead, and very loud. Our waitress was very nice and checked on our drinks while we sat in the corner in the dark. Finally the storm passed, and while Kabuki couldn’t process our payments, we tipped our waitress with as much cash as we had, as she did a stand-up job.”

“The next day we drove the U-Haul to Roanoke, witnessing all the damage. We signed our lease in the dark of Pebble Creek Apartments, and moved into our apartment in extreme heat.”

Personal connections

As with any remarkable weather or news event, so much of how we remember it relates to what we were experiencing in our lives at the time.

“I vividly remember the derecho because I was in Fredericksburg at my daughter’s house for her June 29 birthday. It was her 45th and last birthday. She died from metastatic breast cancer Aug. 20, 2012,” recalled Louise Gammons of Sandy Level. “She had a Bradford pear tree down in her front yard and another large tree behind her house. … At my house in Pittsylvania County the electricity stayed on and no trees down.

“I will never forget with sadness the worst windstorm I have ever been through.”

Michael Hicks of Roanoke County sweated at the funeral of an uncle in Lewisburg, West Virginia, as temperatures in typically cooler West Virginia reached the mid 90s. He described what was to come as “a six-day involuntary participation in an honest-to-goodness ‘survival’ test’” as they returned home to Roanoke in time to hear “debris smacking our house’s vinyl-sided exterior” and awaking the next morning to “the sounds of chain saws and portable generators.” They ended up staying a few days with a son whose apartment didn’t lose power.

Others sweated through a wedding.

“With some trepidation, my husband and I went to a wedding in Giles County on that Saturday when, as I remember, it was about 100 degrees,” wrote Pat Tracy of Blacksburg. “This was a late-morning wedding with an outdoor ceremony, and the indoor space for the reception had lost electric power. We stayed on a shaded porch to watch the actual ceremony then high-tailed it back to our home where our power loss meant no air conditioning, but we could at least take cold showers. The bride and groom forgave us for the brevity of our participation.”

Jac Hull of Bedford had relatives on the way. “As they neared the northern Virginia area on I-8l, we received a phone call from them. Should they come or should they stop for the night? In that time everything here in Bedford was total chaos. We recommended that they stay in northern Virginia overnight because we had no electricity, couldn’t cook food and didn’t think they could actually get to our house. The following day they continued down I-81 witnessing the destruction from the derecho. We knew it would be dicey getting here, but somehow they did only to find all sorts of tree debris on our lane.”

Recreation at a cooling station

Denise Garvey (left) and her mother Donna Alley play checkers at a cooling station set up in the New Castle High School cafeteria.

And some awaited births.

“I was 32 weeks pregnant with my son,” recalled Tina Asbury. “ My husband and I had spent the night in Grayson County on our friends’ family farm for their wedding the next day. We woke up to yard furniture strewn about and the tent for the reception had broken. Ten years later, my friends are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary and I’m planning my son’s 10th birthday.”

Tina Hendrick and her father were at Star City Motor Madness on Williamson Road “awaiting the birth of his first great- grandchild.” A 15-to-20 minute drive to her father’s house took two hours, she said. “We could not figure out what was happening as there was little or no rain — only wind. When we got close to his house, we discovered a huge downed tree blocking our entrance to his house.” Her father stayed with Tina instead, since her home didn’t lower power, and the great-grandchild came on July 4.

Dawn McRoy of Roanoke was also at the vintage car show, nursing prior injuries. “We were sitting in front of Richie Freeze watching the cars. I had just had a cast removed that morning from my foot for a surgery a few weeks before, I was on a walker. When it came up my husband grabbed the chairs and umbrellas and ran to the car, was coming back for me, when it kept getting worse, I was trying to get to him, here I am, with a boot and a walker, trying to ‘run’ to get to the car. I was 59 and was moving like a 90 year old. It was hilarious and scary at the same time.”

Even with the derecho, it was a memorably good day for some.

“The last day of June 2012 was one of the best days of my life … and one of the scariest!,” said Carol Clarkson of Roanoke County. “It was such a great memorable day because I retired after working 40 years for a large local bank.” Her husband drove in for a retirement party, but then returned for a midnight shift job over an hour away. “Somewhere in Alleghany County the road was blocked by a fallen tree. He and another man had to stop and remove it before they could continue. Meanwhile back home, I am cowering in the basement with no power fearing the neighbors trees would fall any minute. “ Without power at home, Clarkson “spent the first week of retirement with our daughter and her husband.”

“My last day of employment was certainly one I’ll never forget thanks to the derecho.”

Resting at shelter

Robert and Brandy Browning relax in cots at a Red Cross overnight shelter at the Roanoke Civic Center (now Berglund Center) three days after the derecho hit in June 2012. The Brownings, who lived in southwest Roanoke at the time, said their house was more than 90s degrees and without power. More than 100 people were at the cooling center days after the storm.

Aftermath

Rather than a quick-moving storm system on one evening, the derecho experience lingered on for days, weeks — arguably a decade in some corner of our hearts and minds.

“The Williamson Road car show was in full swing, I was caught in it,” recalled Freddy Bartholomew. “Damage to my property took weeks to clean up. …. My late 90 year old parents spent a week in a hotel because the power was out.”

“I remember it as the hottest days that made me thankful for my special flashlight, a car full of fuel, several cases of water just purchased as part of our monthly supply with some edible dry or canned food, plus cash on hand as cards couldn’t be used,” wrote Brenda Simmons of northeast Roanoke County. “We now have a brand new generator in the shed, never used and hopefully will never be needed again.”

“It was quiet and peaceful for the next week, but very hot, and nights were calm and dark” recalled Karen Loferski of Blacksburg.

Roanoke Times on July 1, 2012

The Roanoke Times front page: Sunday, July 1, 2012

Melissa Koser, now in Montgomery County but a Fairlawn resident when the derecho hit, recalls “seeing the thermometer read 86 when I went to bed inside my house.” But the end of a nine-day power outage produced an unforgettable keepsake: “The picture I have of my 4 year old with a HUGE smile turning on the light switch and seeing light come on. … I was never so happy to scrub a toilet and flush in my life!”

Mary Gayle and Richard Tunstall of Montvale endured nine days of power outages and a back yard of tall trees wrecked by the derecho. But they were blessed by the generosity of one man and 5-gallon buckets of water. “Each morning at the crack of dawn, this resourceful man would load six 5-gallon buckets into his pickup and head for the (U.S.) 460 Villamont Springs. He got there before the rest of the locals who know about this icy, cold water. Upon arriving home, the heavy buckets of water were placed on the deck to be warmed by the sun. By late evening, the water was ‘almost’ warm enough for bathing.”

Cari Kleven of Salem, who lived in Clifton Forge at the time, didn’t notice when the power came back on. “I was out deadheading my flowers, and my neighbor yelled over that the power had been restore

d hours ago! I didn’t even notice because

I had been doing fine without power. The daylight hours were long on light, I had massive windows so stayed comfortable, I had gas water heater so I was clean, and I had ice & big cooler so I was eating good food! So very fortunate, as many were not so lucky.”

Larry Martin, now of Roanoke, was in Alleghany County at the time, and was without power for two weeks. “It was hot and humid so we had to sleep on the screened porch every night and we had to eat up everything in the refrigerator and freezer that didn’t need cooking and toss the rest. After so many days without power we learned to adapt. The cold showers we took actually felt quite good because of the heat.

“It certainly made us stop and think about all the things we take for granted and appreciate what we have.”

Weather Journal typically appears on Wednesday. This coming Wednesday’s Weather Journal column will also focus on the derecho, coming on the day of its 10th anniversary.

Contact Kevin Myatt at . Follow him on Twitter .

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Since 2003, Kevin Myatt has penned the weekly Weather Journal column, and since 2006, the Weather Journal blog, which becomes particularly busy with snow. Kevin has edited a book on hurricanes and has helped lead Virginia Tech students on storm chases.

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