WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

SWAW: Tornadoes outside the alley

Posted March 2, 2011

While not in Tornado Alley, residents of North Carolina know all too well that our state is not immune from these destructive storms. The most notable outbreak of killer tornadoes occurred on the night of March 28, 1984. Before that night was over, we lost 44 North Carolinians in the worst tornado outbreak our state had seen since the late 1800s. The city of Raleigh will never forget the morning of November 28, 1988, when a single tornado stayed on the ground more than 80 miles, from Umstead Park in Wake County all the way to Northampton county. Just a few years ago, Kenly and Elm City were forced to deal with some of the worst that nature has to offer.

There used to be a belief that these storms were much more prevalent in the Spring than during any other season. However, actual data does not lend much credence to that thought. In the world of weather, seasons are defined a little differently. For instance, climatological Winter covers the months of December, January and February. With these definitions as a backdrop, here is the breakdown of tornadoes by season:

  • Winter: 7%
  • Spring: 36%
  • Summer: 32%
  • Fall: 25%

As you can see, Summer and Fall are not all that far behind the Spring when it comes to tornadoes. The time of day breakdown is a bit more predictable:

  • Midnight – 7am: 11%
  • 8am – Noon: 8%
  • Noon – 4pm: 27%
  • 4pm – 8pm: 41%
  • 8pm – Midnight: 13%

One dubious honor for our state when it comes to tornadoes is that we rank first in the nation with the greatest percentage of people killed by night time tornadoes. Since 1950, 82% of tornado fatalities in North Carolina have occurred at night. This despite the fact that only 28% of tornadoes in North Carolina actually touch down at night.

One note of comfort for all of us is that tornadoes are relatively small when compared to the size of a county. For instance, even if a one-mile-wide tornado roared across Wake County with a path length of 44 miles, only a little over 5% of the county would be in the direct path of this storm. With such good odds, wouldn’t it be OK to play the odds and go about our normal lives? Absolutely not! While the specificity of warnings has definitely improved over the years, it is still not possible to pinpoint exactly where a tornado will strike. Thus, always take action to protect yourself and your loved ones, and be thankful, not resentful if the storm does not strike your house. Spending 20 minutes in your basement or closet does not equate to a huge loss of time in your life, but it could equate to the difference between life and death. That’s a time investment that should be a no-brainer for all of us!

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  • lroyal10900 Mar 2, 2011

    I was 12 years old in 1984 when the tornadoes came through. One passed within a 1/2 mile of my house and the damage was unforgettable. For years afterwards, you could see debris in the woods & see the tops of the broken trees. I still get fearful now when the winds pick up during a storm. My children know when I say, "GO!" during a storm, they know where to go and what to do!