Despite being in the Valley, storms still affect Harrisonburg
Anish Aradhey & Niranjan Aradhey
Located in the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg is protected on both sides by mountains. For this reason, severe weather is not very common. However, many areas in Harrisonburg are susceptible to weather damage, including flooding in heavy precipitation.
“[Thunderstorms can be] more severe in the sense that thunderstorms out in the midwest … you get hail and tornadoes and really, really strong winds … ” retired meteorologist and professor at James Madison University Stanley Ulanski said. “In Harrisonburg, you generally don’t get those situations. Have they occured, have we had them? Yeah. Have we had a tornado watch directly in Harrisonburg? Yeah.”
Although thunderstorms aren’t as dangerous as more powerful storms, such as hurricanes, they can still cause damage and flooding.
“Probably the biggest concern for this area is the really strong winds, which can … down trees and powerlines,” Ulanski said.
Furthermore, these sudden storms can be hard to prepare for. “You never know how severe sometimes storms pop up out of nowhere, especially during the summer months, and … sometimes it takes a little bit longer to prepare for after it has arrived,” Harrisonburg Public Information Officer Hunter McKenzie said.
But when there is a storm, the area is especially susceptible to damage and flooding.
“The first thing is that our older infrastructure, our older streets, our older neighborhoods … don’t have a lot of that stormwater infrastructure,” Environmental Specialist Rebecca Stimson of Harrisonburg Public Works said. “So that will cause flooding.”
For newer areas, however, there are stormwater pipes underground that collect water from roadside drains.
“We don’t size them for those larger storms, we’ll size for storms you’d usually expect. And you’re probably like why wouldn’t you, you know, size up your pipes to carry more water. It’s just very, very expensive to do that, so we size them for… the standard for everybody in Virginia and the United States,” she said.
And the layout of Harrisonburg isn't the greatest for preventing floods, either.
“[Harrisonburg is] built over Blacks Run, and we’re in the floodplain, so that’s an area … that floods, and it just continues to do that because we built right over the water,” Stimson said.
Flaws in the design of the city has led to some severe cases of damage due to weather in the past. These past severe weather systems include Hurricane Francis, which took place about 15 years ago.
“[By the] time it got to the valley, it really wasn't a hurricane, but it dumped a lot of rain at the time. It caused the flooding at JMU and flooding throughout Harrisonburg,” Ulanski said. “[It] was probably about the worst event that I can remember [in] about the last 15-20 years, in terms of flooding in the Shenandoah Valley.”
More recent storms like the 2012 derecho have caused substantial flooding in the area as well.
Officer McKenzie said, “We were overwhelmed with calls, and pretty much county-wide, city-wide there [were]… emergency calls for services related to flooding and, electric-outages, trees down, things like that. ”
Harrisonburg has some response to flooding and other emergencies due to severe weather, including the Harrisonburg Police and Fire Departments as well as Rockingham Fire and Rescue.
“If it involves flooding, the major issues that we’re going to have to deal with at the police department … is to assist fire and rescue,” McKenzie said. “[And] we’d be assisting with evacuating residences, businesses and then controlling those evacuations as well as traffic,”
Weather and radio stations also project warnings for severe weather.
“I think that most people in the Harrisonburg area [and] Rockingham county area are pretty weather-savvy,” Ulanksi said. “For severe weather, they listen to their weather station or turn on local weather radio … so I think that most people … read our weather warnings.”
And, just because there hasn’t been a severe weather system in the past few years, it doesn’t mean that one couldn’t occur in the near future.
“What occurred in the past, could occur again. The problem with that is, it’s not always predictable. For example … just because one team won the Super Bowl one year, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to win next year,” Ulanksi said. “With regards to weather … [meteorologists] look at what did occur in the past and could occur again, but they actually use computer models to try and determine … what will occur in the future. So, … we do learn from the past but we also have [computers] to help us predict for the future.”
As Paul Helmuth, Harrisonburg Fire Department administrative officer said, “Are there disasters that we would have to struggle a little bit more? Sure. But that’s true with any disaster. You can’t plan 100% of everything that you encounter.”
Wondering where the Harrisonburg Fire Department focuses on keeping safe during a storm? Click the button below to find out more.
Schurtz protects books from previous storms
Downtown Books owner Bob Schurtz sits at his desk where he can greet customers and can also look outside to check on his books. Photo by Oziel Valdez.
Few business’s inventory is as susceptible to weather damage as a bookstore. But for downtown books on West Water Street, such disaster has never materialized.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” said owner Bob Schurtz.
Schurtz owns Downtown Books in downtown Harrisonburg. Schurtz sells products from postcards to DVDs to comic books but, as the title implies, the store predominantly sells books, especially used ones. The books Schurtz sells, which he has been doing for the past 43 years, can vary in where they are. They can either be in the store or on the side of his building, depending on what he wants to display. This means that the weather is a concern for Schurtz, since the weather outside can impact the books he leaves for people to see.
“I keep an eye on the radar on the computer. Like today, there’s a chance of storms out in the southwest, so I usually put some of [the books] on [side of the building], but I didn’t put as much as usual,” Schurtz said. “The stuff usually safe because they’re under an overhang, but I could still get caught off guard. I cover up the stuff up and drag them in, especially in the summer, [since] the weather is unpredictable.”
Whenever he does have an emergency, he is always prepared to take the precautions he needs to.
“I don’t know that I worry about it, but I am conscious of the weather,” Schurtz said.
The store, along with the stores that neighbor it, sits right above Blacks Run which, in heavy falls of rain, can flood very quickly. This was the case a couple years ago, when heavy rainfall on a summer day caused the flooding of Blacks Run. Downtown Barbershop, which sits four buildings away from Downtown Books on West Water Street, saw water enter the building. For some businesses, such as Downtown Books, the flooding only reached the entrance of the store, but the rustling of Blacks Run could still be heard under the store.
“The water was so high underneath that I could hear things scraping on the bottom of the store. [I could hear] branches and that was a little unnerving, to say the least,” Schurtz said.