Historic outbreak brings the chase close to home

UPDATE 12:30 AM 4/20/11: In my original post, I left out a bit about tornado emergencies being declared. Check out the sections about the tornado intercepts to learn more.

Friday afternoon I had my eyes glued to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC)… a major tornado outbreak was beginning across Dixie Alley, the lesser known relative of Tornado Alley that encompasses the Gulf Coast states and Tennessee. But while this was occurring, model data began to paint a interesting picture across eastern North Carolina. The region was upgraded midday Friday to a Moderate Risk for severe weather. Even that far out, the SPC was talking about the potential for strong, long-track tornadoes in the Moderate Risk area. I knew after reading that and looking at things myself, I had to go down there.

I started out Saturday morning with an intended destination between Wilson, NC and Dunn, NC. Traffic proved to be difficult on the way down as Spring Break had arrived for many school systems, and Interstate 95 was clogged with vacationers heading south to the beaches. As a result I got to Wilson at lunchtime and parked it at a Bojangles off the interstate with free Wi-Fi for a couple hours, analyzing the situation and determining the best move. Almost immediately upon my arrival, the SPC issued a Particulary Dangerous Situation Tornado Watch for all of eastern North and South Carolina and southern Virginia.

PDS Tornado Watch #150

Map of the counties included in PDS Tornado Watch #150, as well as the probabilities of Severe Weather events

Then at 12:30 PM, the real gravity of the situation brewing set in when the SPC upgraded the region to a High Risk, the first High Risk of 2011

12:30 PM Convective Outlook

The 12:30 PM Convective Outlook from the SPC which featured the first High Risk of 2011


12:30 Tornado Probabilities

The Tornado Probabilities from the 12:30 update. the 30% region was the cause for the High Risk

I was smack in the middle of what was setting up to be a major tornado outbreak. The only problem was it didn’t feel like it outside. In Wilson at the time, it was fairly overcast with a cool-feeling 72 degree temperature. But about an hour later when I stepped back outside, it had changed dramatically. Already decent southerly winds had began cranking, and it felt very humid. It began to feel like a classic day on the Plains.

The initial setup had a squall line roughly along the I-77 Corridor moving east. Some tornadic activity was reported with the line north of Greensboro. However, as the afternoon progressed and the squall line moved east, the southern end of the line began to break up, and more discrete storms were forming and quickly becoming supercells. Given the extreme wind shear in place, it didn’t take long once the supercells formed before they became tornadic.

The first of the storms to become tornadic would also be the biggest of the day. Around 2:45, the first major tornado warning of the afternoon was issued around Sanford, NC. According to the official storm survey, the tornado first touched down at 2:53. This tornado was on the ground for 63 miles, reaching EF-3 intensity at points along its path of destruction through Sanford and on to the southern suburbs of the Raleigh metro area, all the way into downtown Raleigh. I left Wilson and headed west to try and get a glimpse of the storm, not wanting to fully pursue it due to its location in an urban area. On my way, a new tornado warning was issued for Wake County, and a tornado emergency had been declared. A tornado emergency means that a confirmed large tornado is on the ground moving to a populated area. A tornado emergency is rare enough to get in the prominent tornado belts, but to get one in North Carolina, and as you’ll later read, multiple ones, it really showed the gravity of the situation. When I arrived at my location just outside of the Raleigh beltway, I was able to see the Mesocyclone of the storm, and the rain-wrapped shield around the tornado, but that was about it.

Sanford-Raleigh Supercell

Radar capture of the storm as it hit Sanford. Supercells with tornadoes don't get any more classic than this with the hook echo and debris ball at the bottom of the storm. Thanks to Kathryn Prociv for the radar grab

Around the same time, a second supercell had formed around Fayetteville, and quickly became tornado warned, and spawning yet another tornado emergency. The official storm survey pegs 3:40 pm as when the first tornado touched down in Fayetteville, reaching EF-3 strength. The tornado lasted 65 miles, hitting the towns of Dunn and Smithfield. I left the Raleigh storm as it moved toward Wake Forest in order to pursue this new storm moving up from the south.

Smithfield Radar

Radar capture showing the 2nd storm (upper) and 3rd storm (lower), both exhibiting classic supercell characteristics. Thanks to Samantha Huddleston for capturing it.

The initial tornado lifted around Smithfield, but would go on to produce two additional tornadoes. The first one I saw in the vicinity of Kenly, NC, pictured below

Kenly, NC Tornado

Dark stovepipe tornado near Kenly, NC

The storm then raced into Wilson where the third tornado touched down and moved through town, producing damage consistent with an EF-2 tornado. I abandoned the storm here due to the town and the speed of the storm (moving around 60 mph) and moved east towards Greenville to catch the next storm moving up from the southwest. This storm originated around Darlington, SC and had produced 4 tornadoes up to this point, the strongest, an EF-3, having just hit the town of Snow Hill. This tornado dissipated, but as I watched the storm move Northwest of Greenville, I saw it produce a brief tornado before becoming rain-wrapped. According to storm reports this tornado didn’t last long, and only was rated an EF-0. Another tornado-warned storm developed in the footsteps of this storm, and I followed it, but it didn’t produce any tornado. However, in following it, I saw where the mesocyclone of the storm appeared to be getting organized, with strong winds being drawn into it. In fact I came across a stretch of highway where the storm had crossed, and strong winds, either RFD or inflow, had blown a couple vehicles off the road and into the ditch. I lost the storm around Williamston, NC. By this time though, nightfall was coming. So with another tornadic storm approaching from my south, I went east to let to go by, then turned around and started making my way back to I-95.

I stopped back in Williamston for dinner and to allow a squall line that had developed on the cold front to pass over. As I continued heading west, I was watching a spectacular lightning show back to my east. In front of me, the stars were shining as the cold front had pushed through and left clear skies in its wake. In watching the storms behind me, I suddenly witnessed the moon rise above the anvil of the squall line. With the clouds being illuminated by constant lightning, it was a breathtaking, yet bittersweet finish to a devastating and tragic day across eastern North Carolina.

Moon over the Storm

An almost full moon rising above the top of a squall line east of Williamston, NC

Below is a map from the NWS Raleigh detailing the paths of the tornadoes that struck on Saturday. As of now the count is at 26:

April 16th 2011 Tornadoes

Tracks of the tornadoes that struck NC on Saturday

The official storm chase is only a month away now. This year will be my 4th year with the VT Storm Chase team. Saturday’s chase has me really looking forward to heading west and chasing storms on the wide open plains again. There just something special about being out there that I’ve come to look forward to every spring now.

Andrew Smith
VT Storm Chase member since 2008 and returning Field Instructor for May 2011

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5 responses to “Historic outbreak brings the chase close to home

  1. That was a great recap! Thank you for sharing the experience. The following is video I captured of the Wilson, NC tornado after abandoning the Raleigh cell for the same reasons you did. We too saw the rainwrapped mess and it was dangerous being in trees and population:

    Our full account is as follows:

    We left on our short drive to the target area which was the middle of the NC coastal plain and set up shop at a McDonald’s first in Benson then Newton Grove, NC. We kept up with the SPC products and issuances as expected along with the radar. As we entered early afternoon the high risk and a PDS tornado watch were issued. Keep in mind in NC I believe this was the first issuance of a high risk since the ’80s! We couldn’t help but wonder if it would verify though as the low clouds were determined not to break and everything seemed linear frame after frame on the radar. Sure enough as we approached 2 and 3pm everything began to change. Cells along the line quickly became discrete classic supercells with signatures more reminiscent of OK than NC.

    It was time to get on the road and pick our first storm. In the car we had pykl3 radar on my android and ham radio to guide us (still need a mobile card for the laptop). We chose the Raleigh storm and got to it just as a large rain wrapped tornado was hitting southern Raleigh. We saw multiple power flashes with it near I-440’s exit 16 (close to where 40 comes into the beltline). It was jungle and populated and we were in a pretty dangerous spot so we decided to bail on the storm (It was also rainwrapped with no shot of the funnel itself).

    We than leapfrogged south to catch the next cell in Wilson County. We got around the forward flank easily (despite fast forward motions of the storm) and got a great spot on the south side near where the hook and circulation were expected to pass. It is also much more open down there with flat farmland. On a side note the synoptic winds were screaming ahead of these storms at the surface so at times there was a quite alot of blowing dust/sand (which we worried might obscure views). Sure enough we ended up on I-795 south and west of Wilson, NC in Wilson County. After 10-20 minutes of waiting the meso and a large cone appeared! One of my chase partners Kevin Smith got on the radio and called it in to RAH at around 5:15pm. This is when the video was shot! It was hard to tell exactly how far from the funnel we were to estimate its width but it obviously looked quite powerful. Looking at the damage reports that came in later as it hit populated areas it could very well be near an EF-3 when it is finally surveyed. Either way we had a good view and with the fast movement we knew if we tried to get closer we might lose the shot we had. So we remained there and watched it cross the road. It then faded into the rain.

    It became obvious that we were not going to catch up with it again so we decided to go for the next storm down the line and tried to get ahead of it much like we did the second one. In this case we failed due to road options and we didn’t have as much time to spare. We were most certainly cored at Farmville, NC and as it turns out VERY close to another dangerous circulation. The couplet was JUST to our south on the radar so we decided to take an escape route north. We would have never seen the funnel from where we were anyway. We were not in a safe spot. After it had passed we then drove south back to the town and came across the damage path including many large trees snapped off, significant roof damage, downed power poles and lines, and a van upended leaning on a tree and a house. It was the first time I have seen tornado damage up close and personal. Emergency crews were already on the scene which was a relief to see and we got out and snapped a few photos (which I will post later). We were also checking to be sure people were ok that may not have been checked yet by EMS etc. It appeared injury was minimal and people were mostly shaken up. This was hard seeing the human tool first hand but it makes you remember how real it is. Thankfully again nobody seemed to be hurt. One very nice man came out of his house and asked if he could use my phone to call his family which I of course did. He offered to give me something for that but I declined. I didn’t think that was necessary and I could tell he probably had hard times to deal with aside from this disaster. We were then RFD’d by what I would say were 50-60 mph gusts and so we bolted out of there (as to avoid being hit by any loose debris still on the ground).

    This was pretty much the end of our chase as we tried for one more storm behind the Farmville one but were again screwed by roads. We were going to survey some more damage on the way home in the Wilson area but we were losing the daylight and after 300+ miles on the roads of NC we were exhausted. This was a truly historic outbreak for this part of the country and will certainly be remembered for a long time.

  2. Hey Andrew,

    Great recount of Saturday’s storms. I was with you the whole time…but only on radar haha. Look forward to heading out with you again this May where we’ll be back in the open plains! Then, at least I won’t have to live vicariously through you because I’ll actually be there!

    Dominate,
    Kathryn

  3. Jeremy,

    Thanks for sharing your story, and incredible video! Nice to hear from someone else who was out there as well. I was about a minute behind catching the tornado on I-795. I came into Wilson on 301, paralleling the mesocyclone. In fact as soon as I got on 264 east, I think I saw what was probably your tornado report pop up on my GRLevel3, saying a large tornado was crossing I-795. I’m also equally glad to hear your encounter with the damage path in Farmville didn’t take a tragic turn with injuries or fatalities. I still marvel given where these tornadoes hit that there weren’t more fatalities, especially around Raleigh and Fayetteville.

    Andrew

  4. Andrew,

    Thank you and yes I was happy to see everyone basically ok in Farmville. I think the credit for the low number of fatalities goes to the good warning times by NWS RAH. They are a top notch office.

    Jeremy

  5. Thanks for taking the time to post Jeremy! Awesome video. Well Andrew, only a few weeks away… -Dave

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