Raleigh, N.C. — Three days of record-breaking heat that pushed the mercury over the century mark fired up strong to severe thunderstorms across central, northern and eastern North Carolina Sunday afternoon.
In Pitt County, a man was killed when his barn collapsed on top of him. A couple was killed in Beaufort County when a tree fell on their golf cart. Authorities did not release details in those deaths, but did confirm that they were weather related.
Large hail and downburst winds caused damage in at least three other counties and knocked out power to nearly 90,000 Progress and Duke Energy customers.
"We have numerous reports of trees down as well as large hail falling across parts of the area," said WRAL meteorologist Aimee Wilmoth. "We had golf ball-sized hail up towards Roxboro, and even in Wake County, and one report of tennis ball-sized hail just southeast of Fayetteville."
Besides hail in the Roxboro area, many residents and crews spent Sunday night clearing downed limbs, trees and power lines. High winds and flying debris damaged several sky lights, busted windows and bent the flag pole at Person County High School.
North of town, on Country Club Road, a 100-year-old tree fell on a house. No one was injured.
"(The wind) was moving trees like I have never seen before," said Roxboro resident Ted Hale, who witnessed the tree crashing into the house. "Then this tree started falling and I thought, 'Whoa! This is bad.'"
In Nash County near Rocky Mount, the storm tipped over a tractor trailer and caused damage to homes and other properties, including Hickory Meadows Golf Course.
Hurricane Irene ripped through the course last fall. It reopened April 1, and the owners planned a grand reopening celebration for Saturday. The extreme heat forced them to cancel that event and, now, the course is littered with storm debris.
"We lost about 60 trees since Irene and, from what I've assessed from the damage today, it could be 60 again with this particular storm," said Hickory Meadows owner Lori Strickland. "You just reach a point where you have to keep going. That's basically your only choice."
For tobacco farmer Billy McDaniel, moving forward from the storm is going to be tough. He estimates the storm wiped away $100,000 worth of tobacco.
"It was one of the best crops we've had in a while," he said. "We were unlucky, but lucky in the fact that no one was hurt."
Linda Ripke's garage, motor home and SUV were destroyed in the storm. Uprooted trees crashed into her roof and powerful winds knocked her garage off its foundation.
"I've never seen wind that strong," Ripke said. "I do not want to see wind like that again because, you know when wind is strong enough to twist a tree like that, it's tornado wind."
At one point Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service was tracking a possible tornado in Sampson County, but it wasn't clear whether a twister had actually touched down there.
By 6 p.m. most of the severe storm activity had moved south and east toward the coast, where Doppler images were showing an "incredible" amount of lightning, Wilmoth said.
More storms could pop up Sunday night and into the overnight hours, Wilmoth said, bringing the same potential for damaging winds and large hail.
"We are going to continue to watch some storms developing to our north and west overnight," Wilmoth said. "The western half of our viewing area is still under a thunderstorm watch because of storms rolling out of the mountains."
Heat wave sets records from mountains to coast
The storms' intensity was fueled by three days of record-setting temperatures above 100 degrees. The high in Raleigh Sunday reached 103 degrees, shattering the daily record of 99 degrees set in 2005.
Despite the heat, local hospitals say they haven't seen a substantial uptick in heat-related injuries and illnesses. WakeMed, with its four emergency room locations, only treated about 12 people for heat-related problems on Friday and Saturday combined.
"(That's) remarkably low for this type of temperature and humidity," said WakeMed Cary's Dr. Erik Manring. "I think our population is well educated. When you hear it enough and you get an advance warning, and stay inside at the heat of the day, and do things wisely, you stay out of trouble."
Vendors and shoppers at the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh Sunday morning took the heat stoically.
"It's very hot, but air conditioning's only been around for a few years, 60 years probably," said Lisa Lee, co-owner of L and G Farms in Clayton.
Pachia Vang, with Lee's Flowers, had to do without even fans, because the breezes could take the petals off the flowers she was selling.
"We have to drink plenty of water out here, and we just have to try to keep cool and try to hope there's a good breeze coming through," Vang said.
Lee offered samples of plenty of hydrating, summer fruits – cantalopes, watermelons, peaches and blueberries. Freshly picked produce stands up to the heat better than food that has been packed in cooler and transported, she said.
"Most of our stuff is straight from the field, so it's never been in a cooler," Lee said. "It does last longer than what you buy at the grocery stores, because it's cold and then it's hot."
Monday will likely be the last day of this wave of triple-digit weather, when it hits a high around 100 degrees. Temperatures will slide into the mid 90s on Tuesday and down to around 90 degrees – the seasonal average – by next weekend.
Isolated, late-day storms could pop up any day over the next week, and the hot, unstable air mass will keep the possibility of severe storms alive.
So far, this heat wave has twice tied the all-time heat record of 105 degrees at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. That mark has been reached three other times in the city's history – in 1952, 1988 and 2007.
Temperatures have gotten even higher in Fayetteville – rising to 106 degrees on Friday – but hasn't surpassed the city's all-time record of 110 degrees, set in 1983.
In Southern Pines, the mercury rocketed to 108 degrees Saturday.
Charlotte recorded its highest temperature ever at 104 degrees that same day, and daily highs were set at 98 degrees in Asheville and 104 degrees in Wilmington.
Even Grandfather Mountain reported its hottest temperature ever Saturday at 84 degrees at the Mile High Swinging Bridge, breaking the old record of 83 degrees from August 1983.