Heading out from chasing Hurricane Irene on the North Carolina Atlantic Coast, my chase partner and I ran into the path of tornado damage right along the highway. And what was supposed to be our quick exit and drive back to Miami, turned out to have a slightly slower start. We encountered a small line of slow moving cars and a roadside where many were stopped. Very quickly it became clear that victims, family, and friends were out to salvage what they could from Hurricane Irene tornado wreckage. The first scene was just outside the city limits of Columbia, NC on U.S. Highway 64. This is where the strongest of tornadoes went through in the area. The National Weather Service Newport/Morehead City determined that an estimated 50 yard wide, high end EF 2 tornado with 130 mph winds had come through this location on August 26th, 2011 around 11:55 pm and stayed on the ground for about a half a mile. Luckily there were no fatalities and no reported injuries. They also noted several manufactured homes were completely destroyed with severely mangled and twisted undercarriages. This is exactly what I saw a day and a half later when we passed through. Although cleanup had begun, the site was strewn with debris and personal belongings. There was an empty lot where someone’s home probably used to sit with a picket fence still surrounding part of the property. A green pick-up truck that had been flipped around numerous times was severely damaged and laying on its side. The owner told us it was his “new” truck. Luckily he wasn’t home when it all went down. I’m pretty sure parts of his home were residing in the neighbor’s yard and across the street, but it was hard to tell what actually belonged where. Another car was surrounded and crushed by debris while a mini van had some of its windows blown out in a back yard. At this point though, it was hard to tell where the back yard ended and the front yard began. A few other homes were partially intact. One group seemed to be evacuating the furniture from a home with a moving van out front while another was having its roof adjusted. Three other homes appeared to lay dormant. An old blue house sat there with its windows blown out that was a little farther from the highway. Another manufactured home, which had some extensive roof and structural damage awaited the return of its owner. A final mobile home was shredded, but sat where it may always have been sitting.
Twelve miles west on U.S. 64 we encountered another debris field in Creswell. This time a tornado had struck a group of silos and a hardware store. The damage didn’t seem to be quite as severe and of course these weren’t people’s homes. The sites were fairly dormant. The fallen silos were like crumpled aluminum cans. The National Weather Service says this EF 1 tornado with 110 mph winds touched down about 10:55 pm. It was about the same size and traveled the same distance as the one in Columbia. The human element wasn’t a part of the scene since we were looking at businesses where there wasn’t much activity going on, much in contrast to the Columbia site. You can find the complete report on these tornadoes and others that touched down during Irene in this area here at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/mhx/Text/PNS/08272011IreneTornados.txt
As we head through the peak of hurricane season here in South Florida and throughout the Atlantic basin, this comes as a reminder of the tornado threat that comes with a hurricane even with relatively weak winds. While most tornadoes that are produced courtesy of a tropical system are relatively weak, EF0 and EF1 rated twisters with winds topping out at 110 mph, they can still cause considerable damage. And the less occurring EF2 can still drop down from the skies and cause even more trouble for those of us left here on the ground. Hopefully, what we bring back from the hurricane chase in knowledge and visuals can help prepare and keep everyone safe for future storms.