Separating Myths From Facts

While tornado activity in North Carolina is not as common as in the mid-west, our state does frequently deal with severe weather conditions and occasionally, a threat of tornadoes. Less common are extremely dangerous tornadoes that spin at 200 mph, destroying life and property along its path. However, North Carolina has in fact seen several devastating outbreaks that are not soon forgotten.


Meteorological technology has advanced tremendously in the past two decades with faster alert warning systems and hi-tech Doppler RADAR systems that are more likely to spot rotation within a thunderstorm. Radio and television are much more capable today to relay accurate and beneficial storm watches and warnings, however communities can learn lifesaving information that can increase their ability to survive a storm with their lives.


On the night of March 28, 1984, weather conditions were ripening for one of the Carolinas’ worst tornadoes outbreak in recorded history. Sweeping across South and North Carolina was a series of 22 strong tornadoes that took the lives of 57 victims; 42 in North Carolina and 15 in South Carolina. These series of tornadoes destroyed forests, ripped homes to pieces, tore the roofs from commercial buildings and basically obliterated anything in its path as it cut across eastern NC. Areas that were particularly affected were Red Springs, Mount Olive and Snow Hill, but in all, well over a dozen counties saw damage. Making the terrifying experience worse was the storm’s timing, arriving in eastern NC early in the evening hours when very little could be seen with widespread power outages and dark, ominous skies. It would be a storm of particular interest of the late Dr. Ted Fujita, who having studied tornadoes much of his career, created the Fujita Scale, ranking tornadoes by speed and severity.


In the early morning hours of November 28, 1988, the capital of Raleigh would be the target of a dangerous F4 tornado, similar to the effects of those endured in 1984 in eastern North Carolina. This tornado would touch down and remain on the ground for 84 miles!  With ferocious wind speed, it destroyed 425 residence and 78 businesses, most notably leveling an entire shopping center on Glenwood Avenue. Four people lost their lives, including two children. One thousand were left homeless. Damage was estimated at $77 million dollars in 1988.


Another example of severe weather spawning a deadly tornado occurred in Columbus County on November 16, 2006.  Weather forecasters were warning of the potential of severe weather. Striking at approximately 6:40 A.M., an F3 tornado touched down in the small, unincorporated village of Riegelwood. Eight people were killed, including 2 children, during the storm. Approximately 30 homes were destroyed and 3 more damaged.


While some tornadoes give very little or no warning, there can be visual and audible indicators preceding tornadic activity such as:


CLOUD ROTATION. The obvious here is seeing a thunderhead cloud formation with visible rotation within it. While a tornado on the ground is not a guarantee in this type of event, swirling cloud rotations should be carefully observed and attention given to professionals as soon as possible.


SKY DISCOLORATION. Large thunderstorms, called super cells, can create conditions observed as greenish skies that can indicate the presence of turbulence and the possibility of hail. Extremely dark clouds can mean dangerous conditions soon.


FREQUENT LIGHTNING. Super cell thunderstorms will likely produce intense lightning near the storm center, which can be followed by a tornado.  Even without the presence of a tornado, dangerous cloud to ground lightning presents a serious threat.  When thunder is heard, seek shelter immediately and avoid the outdoors until no longer audible.


LARGE HAIL.  Hail is an indicator of a large and potentially dangerous thunderstorm.  It is not uncommon for tornadoes to be present in a hail-producing storm.


ROARING NOISES. Tornadoes usually are noted for producing a growing roar, described by many as the sound of a powerful freight train’s engines or jet plane. If a noise such as this is heard prevailing over normal sounds of gusty winds, take cover immediately and head for a centralized room away from windows and doors.


FLYING DEBRIS. Another obvious sign of strong winds is flying debris. Seeing large items being carried in the wind can be a sure sign of a tornado or strong straight-line winds.  Even if you cannot see a funnel, stay indoors.


CALMNESS DURING THE STORM. Much like that of an eye wall in a hurricane, calmness in the midst of a storm may indicate the funnel is about to touch down close to your location. Stay indoors until its is deemed safe.


While these can have a tendency to be reliable indicators, none necessarily have to be present.  There are just as many myths about tornados as trustworthy factual data such as:


CLASSIC TORNADO DRAMATIZED IN FILM. Tornadoes do not always maintain a shape as seen on movies, such as the Wizard of Oz or Twister.  From a distance, a funnel cloud on the ground may be hard to distinguish from other portions of a thunderhead. The speed at which they move can also be deceptive. They can quickly overtake an automobile in many instances and certainly someone on foot. Plus, a super cell can have multiple tornadoes so do not assume that one you see is the only one present.


TORNADOES COME FROM THE SOUTHWEST.  Not always true. Tornadoes that are spawned from hurricanes often come from the east. Tornadoes can travel from any direction depending on the storm’s direction. Do not assume that the southwest to northeast is always the expected course.


TORNADOES ONLY OCCUR IN SPRING AND SUMMER. While the majority to occur in the warmer months of the year, many do occur in various times. Take note that both the 1988 Raleigh tornado and the Columbus County tornado, occurred during November. This is why it is crucial to pay close attention to meteorological forecasts to be aware of declining weather conditions. Such storms occurring in months such as November are perhaps more rare, but can be more aggressive and unexpected.


AN AUTOMOBILE CAN OUTRUN A TORNADO. On a hypothetical straight line, a modern car could potentially outrun a tornado, but the safety factor in doing so is important. A fast moving thunderstorm knows no boundaries or paths, whereas an automobile must negotiate traffic, potentially slick roads, driving rain and potential hail, curves, traffic lights, etc. Running from a tornado may create an unsafe and potentially deadly situation in its own right. Furthermore, a twister cutting across terrain may catch up to you giving you zero time to react. Inside an automobile is an extremely dangerous place to be with a tornado with 200 mph winds. The safest thing is to pull over, get out of your vehicle and into a low-lying area, such as a shallow ditch. If this becomes necessary, cover your head and neck from flying debris.


TORNADOES NEVER STRIKE THE SAME PLACE TWICE. While the odds may be against it, it certainly can happen and has in the past. This is a poorly made assumption. Severe thunderstorms are deadly and warnings should always be heeded.


THE SAFEST PLACE IN YOUR HOME IS A CORNER OF YOUR BASEMENT. While having an enclosed basement free of windows is indeed the safest place in a home, it is an interior room that is always more structurally sound and away from windows that can break. Evaluate in advance the safest place in your home and have a plan for the family to meet there if little warning is given. Bathtubs in interior bathrooms have been noted to be a good location with something thrown over the individual for additional protection. Also, heavy furniture in a central room may be a good refuge. Always be prepared to protect your head from falling or blowing debris, even inside your home.


OPENING ALL THE WINDOWS WILL KEEP THE HOUSE FROM EXPLODING.  Wrong. Falling barometric pressure is not what causes houses to crumble; rather it is flying or falling debris or the wind itself. Do not waste time opening windows if a tornado is approaching.


Myths about tornadoes have long existed and putting stock in old wives’ tales in such a case can be life threatening.  Do not be concerned with property when your families’ lives are at stake. While modern technology has improved, people still die in severe weather and there is no value in financial recovery when your own life is lost.


 Today, the National Weather Service can alert you even when you have no electrical power to watch television news and weather broadcasts or listen to an electrically powered radio. Severe-weather radios exist that can notify you of imminently dangerous weather conditions with minimal costs of no more than $50 dollars. Just as important as a smoke alarm, so is being able to respond to adverse weather. Every family should strongly consider purchasing a weather radio from a retailer of electronics.


Tornado drills and emergency broadcast testing can be a hindrance, but is imperative to protecting citizens through preparation. Being able to notify the public is vital to saving lives.  Plan ahead and be ready for the next severe weather outbreak.




IMAGE: State Climate Office of NC