Cover Story: Anatomy of a storm

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

GREER, SC (WBTV) - The perfect storm.  The worst outbreak of tornadoes in North Carolina history.  The worst devastation we've seen from a spring storm in decades.

A path of death and destruction.  We all saw it coming but nobody expected this.

The entire state of North Carolina is in pain.

From west to east, it is literally a disaster.  More than 60 confirmed tornadoes.

At least 21 people are dead, statewide.  At least 130 people are hurt. Some of them severely.

800 homes are destroyed or damaged.  And while it was bad here, it was downright scary to the north and east of us.

How did something like this come together?

This is something we're not accustomed to seeing in the Carolinas.  It's more reminiscent of what they experience in the southern Plains.

A history-making storm for the Carolinas.  And it prompted us to travel to where the Charlotte area gets its watches and warnings.

"This is the hub."

The National Weather Service office for Charlotte isn't in Charlotte.  Rather 90 miles away in Greer, South Carolina next door to the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, one of only 122 offices around the country.

"Took off pretty much east of the I-77 corridor."

Warning Coordination Meteorologist Tony Sturey showed us what happened here on Saturday actually came together for the first time out in the midwest on Thursday.

By Friday the storm system had moved into the Deep South.  And on the first day of the weekend impacted us.

"I haven't seen anything like what happened on Saturday in the Carolinas," he told us.

What produced it he said was a recipe of three ingredients that we don't often get together in the Carolinas.  Extremely strong winds in the higher atmosphere.  We had a trigger, which was a strong cold front approaching the area.  And unstable atmosphere.

It came together all at once - midday on Saturday.

It took the roof off this Lowe's Home Improvement Store in Monroe.  And uprooted trees and took roofs off of homes in Rowan and Davie county before moving eastward whereas you know by now it did its worst devastation.

We dodged a bullet.

Sturey told us:  "If the cold front that was one of the mechanisms that instigated all this storms was a little bit slower.. six hours slower.. we may have had the initiation of those violent thunderstorms to the west and could have been something that may have happened in Charlotte."

Meteorologists say there hasn't been a tornado outbreak like this in the U.S. in modern recorded history.  Over three days there were reports of some 240 tornadoes spawned by a single storm system.

"We can go back and take a look at this.. what are we going to learn from it?

Watches and warnings for our area come out of this office.  Sturey showed us how they go about determining when to do them.

Tornado warnings are issued about 30-to-40 minutes ahead of time.  Severe thunderstorm warnings about an hour in advance.

In addition to forecasting.. after an event like this weather service crews will actually visit the areas where tornadoes were reported to look at the damage and decide if it was a tornado and if so how strong it was.

"Hopefully learn about some of the nuances some of the small scale features that occur with this.. the response from people for the tornado warning things of that nature."

We asked him why it's so important National Weather Service teams actually visit the areas where tornadoes are reported and he told us people impacted want to know what happened.

They also do it from a scientific point of view to see if they provided a good service or was there something they missed and could have done better.

Sturey actually conducted the damage surveys on the tornadoes that touched down in Rowan and Davie county and determined that it was in fact a tornado that damaged property in Monroe and rural Union county.

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