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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/29/2010

Hypothermia in summer: The storms of 8/3/2002

By Kevin Ambrose

* 90 degrees? Full Forecast | Tornadoes: Saturday & 8 years ago *

A stationary thunderstorm south of Alexandria on Aug. 1, 2002. The storm produced flooding rain, hail, and wind gusts up to 50 mph near Mount Vernon. As I took this photo from Constitution Avenue, I had no idea that two days later I'd be pinned down by similar thunderstorms during a fishing trip on the James River.

More people die from hypothermia in summer than in winter. Subfreezing temperatures are not a requirement for hypothermia to occur. All that is needed is for weather conditions or water temperatures to lower one's core body temperature below 95°F. This can happen in the summer, when people are less prepared for cold conditions.

If I would've read the paragraph above before Aug. 3, 2002, I probably wouldn't have paid too much attention. We all know that heat and humidity is more often the rule than the exception in our region; even our area's rivers and lakes usually warm to comfortable levels by late summer. Well, on Aug. 3, 2002, I learned first-hand that even during summer, hypothermia can be as dangerous a threat as heat. As I found out, a slow-moving or stationary thunderstorm can output an amazing amount of ice-cold rain, hail and gusty winds.

Keep reading for a weather tale of extreme heat, hypothermia-inducing cold, severe weather and a few smallmouth bass -- all in the same afternoon...

The plan for Aug. 3, 2002, was fairly simple. My friend, Rick, was going to pick me up in his truck about 9 a.m. and we would load my 14-foot aluminum fishing boat into the open bed and drive just south of Charlottesville, Va., to the James River. We would fish for a few hours at my favorite college fishing hole and then spend the night in Charlottesville, hitting a few bars near the University of Virginia, my alma mater.

Temperature map for Aug. 3, 2002. Highs across much of the mid-Atlantic ranged from the mid-90s to near 100.

As we headed south on Rt. 29, the morning heat was stifling. Rick had no air conditioning in his "vintage" truck and every time we stopped at a traffic light we would instantly break into a sweat. The forecast included a heat advisory for the area, with highs approaching 100 and heat indices near 110. There was also a chance for scattered thunderstorms. We discussed that it might be too hot to fish, particularly at the peak of afternoon heat. Perhaps we could hit the bars early? I reassured Rich that we would spend most of the time swimming and wade fishing in the river, not baking in an aluminum boat. We would be fine.

When we arrived at the river and unloaded the boat, I noticed the water level was particularly low and I was shocked at the warmth of the river. The river was almost hot, like bath water. It would not make for a refreshing swim and fishing is generally not good with very warm water.

We used a trolling motor to move the boat about a mile upstream to my old fishing hole. We caught a couple of smallmouth bass as we stood in chest-deep water, casting at the deep holes and eddies. As we fished, I noticed a large cumulus cloud developing almost overhead, just slightly north of our location. It reminded me of the cumulus cloud I watched grow two days earlier, during a photo shoot in Washington. That cloud grew to become a severe thunderstorm, lashing Alexandria and Mount Vernon for over an hour with heavy rain, hail and 50 mph wind gusts. I tried not to worry, since the storm that I watched grow in D.C. missed me by many miles.

2:30 p.m. radar on Aug. 3, 2002. Thunderstorms have developed southwest of Charlottesville and are impacting our fishing trip.

As I continued to fish, I couldn't help but stare at the growing cloud overhead. It didn't move much and it was showing no signs of rain or lightning. I thought it might never grow to be a thunderstorm -- wishful thinking. We fished for about 30 minutes and I noticed the cloud was still just to our north, but had grown considerably taller. A rain shaft appeared to be developing from the base.

I told Rick we may need to move soon. Within a minute, the first lightning bolt came out of the cloud and struck the ground to our north. I counted 5 seconds before hearing the loud thunderclap. The lightning was too close to be in the water. There was a rocky beach nearby and we quickly moved out of the water onto the beach.

From the beach, we watched the storm develop into a large thunderstorm. It never really moved directly overhead, but just brushed us with periods of moderate rain while most of the lightning stayed to our north. The rain felt refreshing, quite cool, but I was mostly annoyed because the lightning kept us pinned to the beach for about an hour. We were burning precious time waiting on the storm.

3:30 p.m radar on Aug. 3, 2002. Thunderstorms are stalled over central Virginia.

Finally, the storm dissipated and the lightning ended. We got back in the boat and headed downstream toward the truck. There was still time to fish on the float back and the cloudy, breezy weather seemed to turn on the fish. We got bite after bite and, for the moment, the storm was forgotten. Then, without warning, a lightning bolt struck to our south.

I counted three seconds between the bolt and the thunder. Rick and I looked at one another. Was this a stray bolt from the first storm? Then big drops of rain began to fall and another lightning bolt struck in almost the same location. Another storm was developing overhead. We needed to get off the water again.

There was a small, pebbled shoreline below a steep embankment on the river's edge. It was a perfect location to weather the storm. As we beached the boat and got out on the rocks, the rain increased and the wind began to blow. We heard a roar behind us and the large trees along the river bank seemed to explode as a tremendous wind gust stripped hundreds of small branches and leaves off the trees and blew a shower of green across the river. I wished I had a video camera to catch that scene.

We were OK, protected from the wind by the steep embankment behind us, and we only had to dodge the small, falling branches. Ultimately, one branch about an inch in diameter struck me directly on top of the head. For a small branch it hurt quite a bit, but did no damage.

4:30 p.m radar on Aug. 3, 2002. Thunderstorms are redeveloping over the same areas.

The rain fell heavy and cold and we huddled on the rocks. The wind quickly subsided but the rain and lightning took almost an hour to end. We were cold, wet and ready to leave. We got back in the boat and motored downstream. There was still more than a half-mile of river between us and the truck, and we were not moving fast. The trolling motor kept getting tangled in underwater weeds. At this point, we just wanted the fishing trip to end.

As we pushed downstream, the weather was eerie. The sky was dark and a very chilly wind blew at about 10 to 15 mph. No rain was falling and there was no lightning. It reminded me of an Autumn day, after a Nor'easter or strong cold front passes through the area. But it was early August and we were in the middle of a heat wave. I knew the cold breezes were from a thunderstorm's downdraft, bringing cooler air down from upper levels in the atmosphere. I just hoped the breezes were associated with the departing storm, not a new one.

5:30 p.m radar on Aug. 3, 2002. Thunderstorms continue to develop and move over the same areas. This is sometimes called "training." We were pinned down under the storms for over three hours.

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning hit in a field adjacent us, next to the river. There was no time between the lightning and thunder -- it was instantaneous. Incredibly, another thunderstorm was redeveloping overhead. We were in disbelief. Another bolt struck very close to our boat. We looked at both banks of the river for a beach, but this time the river had steep mud banks that went directly into the water. There was no good place to get out of the boat. Rain began to fall and the wind increased as wicked clouds moved in from the west very low to the ground. We had to get off the water.

We spied a large rock, big enough for one person, sticking out of the mud bank at water level. In the bank above the rock was a large ground hog hole. One person could sit on the edge of the hole. It would have to do, with the third storm upon us.

I gave Rick the rock and pulled myself up to the ground hog hole to sit and wait out the storm. Soon, rain began to fall in torrents and the wind became stronger. The rain felt like ice water and I was instantly very cold. Unlike the last storm, we were on the bank facing the wind. Rick had brought a beach towel along and I envied him as he curled up into a ball on the rock, hiding himself completely under the towel. He was at water level, partially shielded by the boat.

I, on the other hand, was sitting about six feet above the river on the edge of a ground hog hole, facing the full fury of the storm. I had no towel, no jacket, no poncho. Just my cold, wet t-shirt. I wondered if the ground hog would sense me sitting in his hole and come up to give me a nip. That was not a comforting thought.

The storm picked up in intensity and pea-sized hail began to mix with the ice-cold rain. I shielded my head and face with the cooler lid. The wind gusted fiercely, I'm guessing to around 50 mph, and I worried about the trees around us, which were swaying violently. I began to shiver uncontrollably after the first 10 minutes of the storm and I remembered how the last storm took about an hour to pass. I hoped this storm would pass much quicker than the last.

About 15 minutes into the storm, I was getting unbearably cold. Soon, my shivering intensified and turned into violent muscle cramps and spasms. My biceps were cramping worst and I punched at them with my fists and the cooler lid to try to relax the cramps. At that same moment, the storm was peaking and lightning was crashing down every few seconds, exploding in painfully loud thunder that would jar my shivering and cramping muscles. I've often thought this moment in time ranks as one of the worst in my entire life. The pain and discomfort of cramping muscles combined with getting blasted by a severe thunderstorm was horrible.

I had no coat and no shelter, but I suddenly realized a simple way out of my increasingly cold situation. I remembered how warm the river was, so warm that it was not even refreshing for our swims earlier in the day. I was confident the river would warm my body and protect me from the icy rain. But it's not wise to go for a swim in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. So I'd have to deal with the cold a while longer.

About 30 minutes into the storm, it began to go in cycles of decreasing and then increasing intensity. All the while the rain remained ice-cold, mixing with small hail from time to time. My shivering and cramping ended and I actually felt a huge sense of relief because the pain was gone. I thought of Pink Floyd's song, "Comfortably Numb." Comfortably numb sure beats cramping muscles, or so I thought at the time. Also, for the first time, I felt content to be perched on my ground hog hole in the rain, facing the wind and the storm. I was lethargic and had no desire to move.

I was in some stage of hypothermia and I knew it.

About 45 minutes into the storm the rain was still falling heavily but the lightning was mostly to the south, over a few miles away. It was finally time to go into the river to warm up. I slid down the bank and went up to my neck in the river, kneeling on the river bottom. The water felt awesome, very warm. The irony struck me that hours earlier I had used the river to cool off, now it was instrumental to warming me back to my senses. Slowly, I worked up to treading water. Rick had fared much better than I, protected by his rock and beach towel, but he was still quite cold and he also used the river to warm up.

We had six inches of water in our boat from the rain. The boat's bottom is V-shaped, so the actual amount of rain was less than six inches, but it was still a lot of rain. We floated down the river in the dark with flashes of lighting still visible on the horizon. Another fishing boat was behind us with their flash lights sending beams of light across the water toward the shoreline. I was curious to hear about their storm story, but at the time, none of us felt like talking. We just quietly loaded our boat and hit the road, not a word was spoken.

On the drive back to Charlottesville, we noticed that fallen trees, shredded leaves, and washed out ditches were widespread. We had the truck's heat cranked full blast during the entire drive. It took quite some time to warm up after the storm. Later, in Charlottesville, everything was back to normal. We had a good dinner, hit a few bars, and discussed the wild afternoon on the river. We also discussed how a simple poncho in the tackle box would have saved us a lot of agony. Our lesson learned was to be prepared for all kinds of weather when venturing on a hike, camp out or fishing trip, even during the summer.

The following day, I learned that the storms killed two people in the D.C. area and produced a wind gust of 89.7 mph at the Manassas Airport, overturning two aircraft and blowing a blimp from its moorings. Over 100,000 people were without power after the storms and numerous trees and power lines were down across the entire area. It was a widespread, long-lasting outbreak of severe thunderstorms that will always be burned into my memory.

By Kevin Ambrose  | April 29, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Temperature Extremes, Thunderstorms  
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Next: PM Update: Preparing for a taste of summer


Kevin, great story, but thankfully you lived to recall it

The reference to the 5 second delay between seeing the lightning and hearing thunder translates to the lightning being about 1 mile away. That was definitely too close. But, it's important to recall that lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from the originating thunderstorm cloud (over 2 minute delay). Being a boater, my mantra is if you can see lightning in the distance, forget counting and get someplace safe, pronto.


Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 29, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Great story, and well written. Very engaging.

Posted by: AdmiralX | April 29, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

wow... more hypothermia deaths in summer than winter....! i'll have to file that tidbit away for snow-whiner and thunderstorm-lover "thinkspring" et. al. next time they're going on about the dangers of snow or the joys of thunderstorms....

harrowing story, too, btw kevin.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 29, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I never knew you could get hypothermia in warm weather, but now I wonder if I had it when I was in Belize in February. We went cave tubbing on a relatively cool (for Belize) day--it was only in the low 70s. After about an hour in the cave I had all the same symptoms you described above--I was shivering, cramping, and then I zoned out. It took me hours to warm up after we were out of the water. Thanks for alerting us all to this issue!

Posted by: bachaney | April 29, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

no kidding! i've been "cave tubing" in belize too. it was an "excursion" on a caribbean cruise. i would call it more river tubing - but we did pass through a few caves. it was so cool. the river was running really high when we were there. family still talks about it.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 29, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

bachaney, those are classic symptoms of hypothermia. Once you reach the "zoned out" stage, hypothermia becomes dangerous because one is less likely to have the energy or motivation to escape from the situation that has already reduced the body's core temperature.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | April 29, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

This was a good story, thanks for posting.

Another interesting tidbit is that frozen victims of hypothermia are sometimes found to have removed some of their clothes.

Posted by: spgass1 | April 29, 2010 11:40 PM | Report abuse

I believe we had a major hailstorm that afternoon in Ballston. The two big hailstorms I've seen here occurred in August, but many of our hailstorms here occur in the spring from March or April until early June. Thus far I've seen no hail here in July or during the fall months.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 30, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

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