Thursday, March 27, 2014

30 years ago Friday ... tornadoes devastated Carolinas

Friday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the deadliest weather events in Carolinas history -- an outbreak of tornadoes that stretched from the western edge of South Carolina to the northeast coast of North Carolina.

Over a six-hour period, a series of 22 twisters smashed through 25 counties -- eight in South Carolina, 17 in North Carolina. Among the twisters were seven F4 storms, the second-strongest rating of tornadoes on the Fujita scale.

By the time the last of the tornadoes moved ashore from Albemarle Sound into Chowan and Perquimans counties, 57 people were killed and a staggering 1,248 injured.

None of the tornadoes hit Mecklenburg County, although large hail associated with one twister was reported in Matthews and southeast Charlotte. Only two counties in the Charlotte region -- Union (N.C.) and Lancaster (S.C.) -- were hit. But the storms were nearby, and anyone who drove on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Columbia or to Myrtle Beach through the Bennettsville areas saw the damage for several years.

The tornadoes were bred from a powerful low pressure system that dropped barometric pressure to 28.95 inches in Charlotte. The low pressure system rode along a stationary front draped across central North Carolina. While Charlotte had temperatures in the 70s, it was 25 degrees colder in Greensboro.

In advance of the storms, the Severe Local Storms unit, a predecessor of the Storm Prediction Center in operation today, forecast a "high risk" of severe weather on March 28, 1984, for Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

It was the first time a "high risk" ever had been issued.

Alabama and Georgia largely were spared of the weather.

But about 4:30 p.m. that day, an F1 tornado descended into the town of Due West, S.C., in Abbeville County. That storm injured 24 people. For the rest of the evening, National Weather Service offices across the Carolinas scrambled to keep up with these staggeringly strong storms.

Some notable facts:

-- Sixteen people died in an F4 tornado near Greenville, N.C. That storm narrowly missed a direct hit on the East Carolina University campus.

-- A tornado that hit near Bennettsville, S.C., was 2 miles wide.

-- Another twister was on the ground for 45 miles, from Bennettsville, S.C., northeast to Parkton in North Carolina.

-- The F4 tornado that crossed I-77 in Fairfield County cleared out an area of trees, about 300 feet wide, on both sides of the road. Motorists could see that damage for several years.

-- The twister that hit a shopping center in Bennettsville destroyed a shopping center and produced fatalities. Beach-bound motorists could see that damage for more than a year.

Here is a list of the 22 tornadoes and their damage:

4:30 p.m. ... F1 in Due West, S.C. (Abbeville County). 24 injuries.

4:40 p.m. ... F2 hits north of Laurens, S.C. (Laurens County). It destroys 19 mobile homes, with 19 injuries.

5:20 p.m. ... F2 hits near Newberry, S.C. (Newberry County). It is on the ground for 23 miles and destroys 80 businesses in Newberry, causing $11 million damage. One death, 38 injuries.

5:40 p.m. ... F3 hits east of Newberry. it destroys 254 homes and 86 businesses, causing $14.2 million damage. 10 injuries.

6 p.m. ... F4 hits Winnsboro, S.C. (Fairfield County). This storm crosses I-77, killing a trucker. In all, five died and 110 are injured.

6:10 p.m. ... F1 touches down briefly in Fairview (Union County), the closest storm to Charlotte. There are no injuries.

6:20 p.m. ... F4 causes massive damage to forests near Kershaw, S.C. (Lancaster County). There are 31 injuries.

6:40 p.m. ... An F2 hits north of McBee, S.C. (Chesterfield County), wiping out part of the tree cover in the Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. There are no human casualties.

6:45 p.m. ... F4 hits near Cash, S.C. (Chesterfield County), destroying 36 farm buildings. 24 injuries.

7:10 p.m. ... Another F4 rips into the Northwood Shopping Center in Bennettsville, with a path 2 miles wide. The storm rumbles 17 miles, across Marlboro (S.C.) and Scotland (N.C.) counties. There are seven deaths and 100 injuries.

7:20 p.m. ... A devastating F4 follows a path parallel to the storm above, pushing 45 miles across Marlboro County and into North Carolina across Scotland, Robeson and Cumberland counties. The town of Red Springs is devastated, as is the South Carolina town of McColl. The toll: seven deaths, 395 injuries.

7:45 p.m. ... An F3 storm in Bladen, Cumberland and Sampson counties kills 12 and injuries 101. Six deaths are in Clinton.

8:10 p.m. ... F2 in Nash County, with no injuries.

8:15 p.m. ... F4 makes a direct hit on Mount Olive College and causes more than $25 million damage in Sampson, Duplin and Wayne counties. The toll: three dead, 70 injures.

8:30 p.m. ... F3 injures 81 persons in Wayne and Lenoir counties.

8:45 p.m. ... The deadliest storm, and F4, leaves 16 dead and 153 injures in Wayne, Lenoir, Greene and Pitt counties. More than 300 homes are destroyed in Greenville, and the storm brushes the ECU campus.

8:55 p.m. ... F3 kills six and injures 19 in Bertie County. Five deaths are in one family, living in a mobile home.

9:10 p.m. ... F2 in Bertie and Ahoskie counties. Seven injuries.

9:17 p.m. ... F1 with no injuries in Hertford County.

9:35 p.m. ... This F2 was separated from the main area of storms, down in Horry County west of Myrtle Beach. It injured eight.

9:37 p.m. ... F3 hits Gates County, killing two and injuring 10. This storm actually crossed into Chesapeake, Va.

10:15 p.m. ... The last tornado. It started as a waterspout and then came ashore as an F1 in Chowan and Perquimans counties. One person died and one was injured.


Scott Schuyler said...

I remember the Bennettsville one especially. My family and I drive by that shopping center a few days after the storm. That was my first look at what a twister can do!

Anonymous said...

I was 6 years old and living in St. Pauls. I remember the storm that hit Red Springs. We went there the next day to see the damage. Can't believe that has been 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

I was ten years old, returning home to Wallace from Bennettsville on Hwy 9: I asked my grandfather if we could stop at the shopping center (I think it was a Rose's, maybe). He said there's a storm coming, & we could stop next time. About 45 minutes later, I listened to the tornado rip through, not knowing what the roar was at the time. The rescue vehicles' sirens seemed to last the whole night. Thank God - grandpa didn't like driving in the rain!