in Checking In, Weather

Raleigh Tornado, Part I

Boy, that doesn’t happen every day. A huge tornado roared through the Triangle yesterday, leaving a path of destruction across Wake County. Skywarn spotters reported that the Lowe’s hardware store in Apex was smashed. Other reports told of brick buildings on South Saunders Street being busted. Downtown, there are streetlights out everywhere and trees blocking many streets on the east part of town. Here at home, I’m fortunate nothing happened to our home but we’ve been without power since about 3:45 PM yesterday. I’ve been keeping the dog company while Kelly and the kids are in Virginia for a few days.

I’d read the weather report on Friday, saying that the weather Saturday would be rough. Still, when clouds lingered through the morning but didn’t drop any rain, I figured the forecast was a bust. I got a lot of yard work done before finally coming in around 2 PM.

I was in a Capital Boulevard store when I heard the EBS alert about the approaching storm. Flipping on the radio, I heard WRAL’s forecasters Mike Maze and Nate Johnson talking about a tornado warning and how flying debris was being picked up on radar. The tornado was in Lee County and headed towards Raleigh. I made haste towards home and pulled in as the clouds began to darken and the wind began to pick up.

Barely did I have time to put my shopping items down before things turned quite ominous outside. The sun stopped coming through the windows. I turned on the TV to see large swaths of red on the weather radar and video of an approaching cell on TV. Things got really scary when the WRAL forecasters ordered everyone in the station to take cover. Suddenly the image on my TV froze and I felt incredibly alone.

Quickly, I sent out tornado warning emails to all the neighborhood email lists I subscribe to. I didn’t know if it would do anyone any good but I figured I had nothing to lose. Maybe someone would read my message and it would keep them safe. Minutes later, the power flickered off (and has stayed off since, I might add).

Our dog Rocket was freaking out but when I directed him to the utility room, our family’s shelter area, he calmed down noticeably. I soon joined him, taking my ham radio, weather radio, and portable AM/FM radio with me for good measure. All three were on and chattering about the approaching doom, but I didn’t need them to tell me that: it was now dark as night inside the house. Right before I went in the utility room for good, I took the unusual step of filling a water bottle to keep with me, just in case the house collapsed on me.

I could see out the back window from the utility room. The winds were howling something fierce. Trees blew hard to the east. Limbs went flying. I hunkered down and waited for the worst but as soon as I had I realized the worst was over. There were no big booms. No trees had come down in my yard. I didn’t even hear the tell-tale sound of a freight train, though I couldn’t hear much of anything except the chattering of the many radios I had.

When I ventured out of the utility room, I was relieved (and somewhat amazed) to see how lucky we were. Knowing that nothing was happening here, I piled the dog into the back of the car, grabbed my cameras and ham radio, and headed out around the neighborhood to see how others fared.

I didn’t need to go far to see the first storm victims. My neighbors at the end of my street had a tree come through their front window. The neighbor across the street from them had a tree come through their roof and others in their back yard snapped. In both instances, the trees were sheared off about 30 feet up. My neighbor’s mailbox was lying in the street about 20 feet away from its original spot in the ground. A tree blocked most of Bennett Street at the intersection of Tonsler. Leaving the dog in the car, I snapped picture after picture of the destruction as the rain began to come down hard.

Based on my neighbors’ damage, it was clear that the damage were probably bad to the east of us so I hopped back in the car and turned east on Glascock towards Raleigh Boulevard. I was shocked at what I saw. It looked like a war zone! A huge pine came down across Glascock right at Raleigh Boulevard. The traffic lights were a tangled mess. The telephone poles on either side of Glascock were snapped 6 feet from the top, their (unenergized) power lines dangling just above the roads.

The Food Lion shopping center was a mess, with nearly all of the rooftop signs blown out. Trees and building debris littered the parking lot. A utility box spurted water into the air near the Little Caesar’s Pizza restaurant. Road signs were twisted around.

There was eye-popping destruction everywhere. To think that only mere minutes ago it was all fine really blew my mind.

I drove down N. State Street to see what shape things were in over there. Turning left at Oakwood Ave., I saw big trees down all around St. Augustine’s College, including one blocking the entrance to the university. A line of cars were in front of me, waiting their turn to go around another big tree that was almost completely blocking Oakwood Ave. Rather than wait for my turn, I turned around and drove west on Oakwood Avenue.

I continued on Oakwood until I got to the neighborhood of Oakwood, then I turned south on East Street. When I got to Hargett I saw many signs of destruction. Large oak trees that had one stood in the 2 acre vacant lot there were now upended. Branches were scattered everywhere. Raleigh City Cemetery behind me was a wreck, with many stately oaks and other trees now toppled. What was really amazing was seeing the wrought-iron fence torn apart by the wind. I never thought I’d see that.

Dodging raindrops and traffic, I wandered on foot to the intersection of Hargett and East Streets. At this four-way stop intersection, only three stop signs remained, each bizarrely twisted like corkscrews. At my feet, with me almost not noticing, was the fourth stop sign. Or, what remained of it, that is. The steel post lay in the street, the stop sign itself was gone, and the whole post had been ripped cleanly in two at the base. I stood stunned, imaginging the kind of wind it must have taken to rip apart steel.

I chatted with the other folks out surveying the damage. Then, with the dog getting warm and bored in the back of the car, I headed back home.

When I returned to the neighborhood, the neighbors who had house damage from their fallen trees were out, talking. I stopped and chatted with them for a bit, thankful to hear that no one had been hurt. They mentioned that the N. King Charles area of Longview had gotten hit particularly hard, so I dropped the bored dog off at the house, grabbed my camera again, and headed out to see what I could see.

This was a move I could’ve done without, frankly. Turning right onto Marlborough from N. King Charles, I entered a war zone. Trees were down everywhere, with many hitting the homes nearby. It seemed like at least one out of three homes suffered damage, often major damage at that. I watched as an EMS worker waved the car ahead of me back the way he came. Another car drove up and talked to the EMS technician, after which she informed me that the way was clear all the way down Marborough. A fire truck was parked in the road and apparently one of the firefighters had an elderly mother who lived at the end of the street. The crew had cleared the road all the way out to his mother’s home at the corner of Marborough and Crabtree. It’s a good thing, too, since by the time I had threaded my car through the damage and trees in the street, I saw this lady’s home was destroyed. A large tree had taken off the entire side of her home, leaving the inside of her home exposed. As I took photos around the area, she calmly swept her front porch, as if she hadn’t noticed the giant hole in her home.

With no where else to go, and with daylight fading quickly, I retraced my path down Marlborough and came back home. It was a surreal sight.

I holed up for the night with my light provided by an inverter attached to our deep-cycle marine battery. Around ten I was done for the night, visions of the apocalypse bouncing around my head.