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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
VT Storm Chase member since 2008 and returning Field Instructor for May 2011