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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Amazing storm off New England coast

Remember that big winter storm that some meteorologists thought we might get in the Carolinas yesterday?

It never came together, as we all know, but it certainly got itself organized farther to the north. The storm has turned into a meteorological bomb off the New England coast, and it appears likely to deliver quite a wallop to Canada's Maritime Provinces.

One piece of energy that went into this amazing storm system dumped several inches of snow in North Carolina's mountains. I saw a 9-inch snowfall registered at Beech Mountain.

The main part of the energy stayed off the coast, and that spared the big cities along the Eastern Seaboard -- Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, New York and even Boston -- from damaging winds, coastal flooding and heavy snow. The only parts of the United States far enough east to feel the real impact of the storm were Nantucket Island and Cape Cod in Massachusetts and northeastern Maine.

Winds are strong enough around the low pressure system to cause flight delays in New York and Boston, but the reports from Nantucket and from eastern Maine have been something to behold.

This is basically a hurricane-force storm system. The central pressure at 1 p.m. was about 960 millibars. As WCNC-TV meteorologist Brad Panovich tweeted around midday, that pressure is deeper than any of our hurricanes last summer.

Some reports I've seen as of early Wednesday afternoon:

101 mph gust at a buoy off Johnston, Maine (there is some question about the reliability of this report).

91 mph gust at 11:40 a.m. at the Westmoor Club on Nantucket.

87 mph gust at Grand Etang, Nova Scotia.

Almost 10 inches of snow has fallen on Nantucket, and more than a foot is expected in northern coastal sections of Maine. More than that will fall in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

As you might imagine, it's not a good day for a boat ride in the Atlantic east of Maine and south of Nova Scotia. I've seen wave reports of 25 to 30 feet, but there certainly must be 40-foot waves there today.  It's like a scene out of "Perfect Storm."

Fortunately, this wasn't a Carolinas storm.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another bout with winter next week?

It looks as if changing the calendar from winter to spring won't make much of a difference in the weather across the Carolinas and the rest of the eastern United States.

In fact, several computer models are predicting a storm system next Monday and Tuesday that could bring more wintry precipitation to the Carolinas. In case you're keeping track, that would be several days after the official start of spring at 12:57 p.m. Thursday.

It's starting to appear as if spring -- sustained spring, not the pattern we've seen, with a few days of 70 degrees followed by 30s -- won't be coming to the Carolinas anytime soon. Brace yourself for a possible continuation of March's nasty weather into April.

Both the Global and European models are showing the storm system, and they also show yet another intrusion of very cold air into parts of the Southeast.

Remember the whole thing about the Polar Vortex back in January?

Well, the pattern really hasn't changed a lot. Very cold high pressure has taken up residence for the last few months over the northern United States, from the Great Lakes to the East Coast. On occasion, high pressure relaxes its grip, and temperatures get mild for a few days in the Carolinas. Then it reasserts itself, and the cold air returns.

The problem has been worsened by a steady stream of low pressure systems which have moved across the Gulf of Mexico and through the Southeast. They've produced precipitation which has fallen in the cold air. The result: Carolinas ice storms, mountain snow, and heavy snow in the Mid-Atlantic. Up to 10 inches of snow fell earlier this week in the Washington area, threatening the blooming of cherry blossoms later this month.

So enjoy the 60s and 70s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but be prepared for a return to the cold stuff early next week.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Winter That Won't Go Away ... won't go away

The same weather story that has enveloped the Carolinas since January is adding another chilly chapter this week, as we prepare to turn the calendar from winter to spring.

Yet again, a few mild days are being followed by an abrupt and major cool down, along with the threat of frozen precipitation.

The players are the same as in previous cases over the past two months.  A strong high pressure system with unseasonably cold air settles in place somewhere over the Great Lakes or Northeast (the Great Lakes, in this case), pumping an ample supply of cold air into lower levels of the Carolinas atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a low pressure system forms in the Gulf of Mexico and pushes across the Southeast. As the precipitation from the Gulf low moves into the Carolinas, it changes from rain to frozen precipitation in spots.

The last time, it meant a big ice storm for the northern part of North Carolina. This time, it appears as if the icing threat will be a lot lower. But freezing rain or drizzle is likely at times early Monday and again Monday night and Tuesday morning in parts of the Charlotte region, especially along the Interstate 40 corridor.

For the immediate Charlotte area, it means another round of a very cold rain.

The temperature drop will be noticeable today (Sunday), with highs only in the lower 50s and rain arriving. The rain will continue overnight, although it will taper off or possibly end Monday morning -- only to start again later in the day as another low pressure system arrives. On Monday, Charlotte will have temperatures in the mid and upper 30s with rain. Even Tuesday, it appears as if temperatures will recover only to the lower 40s for highs.

It will be Wednesday before we're able to break this latest cycle of cold and precipitation.

Along the I-40 corridor, some freezing rain is likely, especially Monday night. For now, it appears as if ice accumulations will be 1/10 of an inch or less. That is not enough to cause widespread power outages. But it's a situation we'll have to watch.

Farther to the north, this system means a heavy snow even for much of Virginia.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Charlotte did get ice ... a couple hundred feet above ground

Those of us who live on the ground in Charlotte are undoubtedly very happy that we managed to avoid the crippling ice storm that hit about a 15-county area in North Carolina to our north and northeast.

Early Friday afternoon, there were more than 400,000 power outages in the state -- the result of several hours of freezing rain that fell early Friday from the strong winter storm that is finally pushing out to sea.

That will make this storm one of the worst in state history, from a standpoint of power outages. Certainly, it's the most damaging winter storm in more than a decade.

As you've probably heard, Charlotte barely escaped the freezing rain. You didn't have to go very far north -- just to southern Iredell County or the northern parts of Cabarrus and Stanly counties -- to see the glaze on trees and power lines. Several trees and lines were downed in Mooresville, for example.

But not all of Charlotte escaped the ice.

While the city's ground temperature hovered at 33 degrees from Thursday evening until around daybreak Friday, it was a degree or so colder just a few hundred feet above the ground. And if you live or work in one of the taller of the high-rise buildings in the city, you probably saw ice outside your windows Friday morning.

As temperatures gradually warmed a few degrees Friday morning, that high-rise ice began to fall.

According to police, falling ice broke a car windshield about 10 a.m. in front of the Bank of America Corporate Center on North Tryon Street. At another of the city's big buildings, the Duke Energy Center, falling ice was reported a couple times during the morning.  Employees reported that a main entrance was closed for safety reasons.

For much of Thursday, we talked about how Charlotte would be near the dividing line between rain and frozen precipitation. The ice on the big buildings uptown was a reminder of that.

Unusual storm: If you've lived in the Carolinas for any length of time, you know that ice storms are rather rare for March.  I saw several lists of ice storms in this part of the country, but we're talking about only a half-dozen or so icing events over the past 40 or 50 years.

For freezing rain to develop, you need a pocket of cold air near the ground. And that usually requires a strong and very cold high pressure system over the Northeast to supply the layer of cold air near the surface in the Carolinas.  Those are not very common in March, when climatology begins saying "spring."

But this has been a different winter. Since early January, there has been episode after episode of polar air masses pushing into the continental United States. That was the case again this week, and the result was an ice storm over parts of North Carolina.