The Trouble with Tornadoes

Fay Mitchell

The warm again, cold again, sunny then cloudy recent North Carolina weather had some folks thinking spring would never arrive. Now that the dogwoods and azaleas dot the landscape with graceful blossoms, we may allow ourselves to believe that spring is really here.

But in addition to those much-loved blooms, springtime in North Carolina often mean tornadoes. The warm, moist air in the lower atmosphere from the Gulf meeting cold, dry air above from the west can lead to thunderstorms that give birth to tornadoes, the fiercest of mother nature’s storms. Maybe it’s God’s sense of humor that springtime, March through May, is our prime tornado season, although tornadoes can occur at other times of the year.

Many in the state remember the state’s catastrophic outbreak of April 16, 2011. It was the end of a three-day trek for tornadoes in Dixie Alley, of which North Carolina is part. While Tornado Alley in the Great Plains is widely recognized, Dixie Alley in the southeast is far more deadly, and includes parts of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North and South Carolina. Tornadoes have caused more deaths in Dixie Alley than any other part of the country. Hilly terrain, large numbers of mobile homes and frequent night time occurrences are factors.

The spring outbreak of April 14-16, 2011, hit 16 states, traveling from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, into South Carolina, North Carolina and southern Virginia. It struck North Carolina April 16 and was particularly destructive in Sanford, wiping out a Lowe’s Home Store and large areas of southeast Raleigh, including many neighborhoods. Shaw University was closed for the rest of the semester.

Numerous homes and businesses in the region were destroyed and recovery took months or years. Lexington, Burlington, Fayetteville, Jacksonville and other communities were impacted by this possibly mile-wide storm. Structural damage in central North Carolina was more than $325,000,000. Splintered homes, twisted buildings and cars and destroyed crops were in its wake. The storm produced 30 confirmed tornadoes in the state and left 24 people dead.

This was the state’s second most deadly storm, the most deadly occurring March 28, 1984, which caused 42 fatalities in the state. That storm also brought 15 deaths to South Carolina.

During that week seven years ago, many were still evaluating and recovering from the April 16 tornado outbreak. Other North Carolina tornadoes have proven to be deadly. With six weeks of tornado season left, and one just confirmed for April 15, it would be wise to be prepared. 

A few things to remember: A tornado watch means conditions are right for a tornado. A tornado warning means one has been sighted. Falling hail means real danger, as does the air becoming very still. Have a family tornado plan, and a weather alert radio. ReadyNC has complete tips on tornado preparedness.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Smith