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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The November tornado

Last night about midnight, a strong cold front passed through. Raleigh was under a tornado watch, and for about 5 minutes there were strong winds and some lightning.

It reminded me of the Thanksgiving 1988 tornado that pulverized this neighborhood. Like last night, the 1988 tornado happened shortly after midnight in November -- not a time when one normally expects severe weather. In fact, the 1988 tornado was so unexpected that the National Weather Service hadn't issued a watch of any type. Nor could they issue a warning when it hit; the NWS had shut down their local radar for repairs over the holiday weekend.

Earlier on the day of the tornado, there had been a greenish tint to the sky. Folks often say that green skies are ominous. I awoke about 1 am to a raging thunderstorm. As a native of Alabama, I'm accustomed to bad storms. But this thunderstorm was startling in its intensity. The bedroom was continuously lit by lightning flashes through the skylight.

After a few minutes, I began to hear a roar. The Raleigh-Durham Airport is less than 10 miles away, so it's not uncommon to hear jet engines at night. But it occurred to me that no pilot would be flying through a storm like this. Then I began to hear a snap-crackle-pop punctuating the roar, and I realized what was happening.

Going down the stairs to reach a safer place, my ears popped as the tornado went by. That was a truly odd feeling, and it taught me an unforgettable lesson: if you don't immediately take shelter when you first hear the tornado, it will arrive before you're ready.

Electricity was lost throughout the area, so there was no way to know what had happened. Around 7 am, phone calls began coming from family and friends who were seeing the news on television. I found a battery-powered radio and heard that the tornado had killed two children not far from us. One of those lots remains empty to this day.

Later the tornado was classified as an F4. It touched down several miles from our house, initially exploding a Kmart that was empty at that time of night. A 20-foot section of the Kmart's roof rested around a tree in the back yard of the house next door. The corrugated steel had twisted like the plastic tie on a loaf of bread.

The center-line of the tornado's path was three blocks to our south. It stayed on the ground for another 50 miles before dissipating in northeastern North Carolina. The City of Raleigh, which has consistently managed natural disasters very well since we moved here, provided a large construction dumpster for our cul-de-sac. Over the next weeks we filled it with debris. In addition to trees, my yard collected a pile of 2x4 lumber from a garage that was under construction a block down the street.

Fortunately my house and vehicles suffered almost no damage -- the only home on the block unscathed.

In short, it was a very memorable event. I don't expect that I'll be relaxed during any November thunderstorm for the rest of my life.