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Tornado outbreak changed lives, forecasting

Posted March 27, 2009

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— Traci Hayes remembers stewing in her bedroom 25 years ago Saturday when a tornado cut through Robeson County and leveled her home.

Hayes, now a teacher at West Clayton Elementary School, was a freshman at Red Springs High School in March 1984 and had had an argument with her father over algebra.

"I was laying down, just being angry," she said. "There was a bad storm, and I remember hearing hail. I remember it getting just deathly silent, and then the next thing I knew, I was trying to climb out of my house."

The tornado that hit Red Springs was among 22 twisters that raked North and South Carolina during a six-hour period on March 28, 1984, killing 57 people, injuring more than 1,200 and causing an estimated $578 million in damage.

March 1984 tornado outbreak 1984 tornadoes remembered

Forty-two of the fatalities occurred in North Carolina, where the system was the largest tornado outbreak in more than a century. A path of destruction that was almost two miles wide in some places stretched from Robeson County on the South Carolina line to Gates County on the Virginia line.

WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel covered the storms from Raleigh.

"When I came in the morning before, I looked at the forecast patterns in the upper atmosphere and I figured, 'Oh my gosh, I've seen that a lot in the Midwest but never along the East Coast,'" Fishel said.

March 1984 tornado outbreak map

The jet stream over the state caught his eye, and as he studied the maps, isobars and surface conditions, his gut began to churn.

"The range of emotions I felt that day I will never forget," Fishel said, recalling his worry that his forecasts had been overblown because WRAL hadn't received any damage reports that night.

"The tornadoes had knocked out a lot of the communications," he said. "I went from fearing I had blown it out of proportion to thinking I hadn't done enough."

The tornadoes yanked up giant trees and trampled them like weeds, blasted proudly built homes into scrap heaps and tossed pickup trucks about like toys.

"It was really black. You couldn't tell anything until the lightning would flash. Then, you could see things right around you," Red Springs resident Billy Baxley said.

Baxley and his little sister, 2-year-old Tanya Michelle Baxley, had gone to Red Springs United Pentecostal Church on the outskirts of town for a Wednesday night Bible study session.

"She was the kind of baby that would just love to come to church," church pastor Rev. Waymon Oxendine said of Tanya, noting she would often wander among the pews, giggling.

The tornado blew the church apart, killing Tanya.

"The walls came caving in, and the top of the building came down," said Oxendine, whose ribs were broken when the collapsed roof pinned him to the floor.

Hayes' house also collapsed when the twister hit it.

"I remember I was screaming for my parents, my dad especially," she said.

By the time her father pulled her out, he had about 50 nail holes gouged into his feet, including more than a dozen places where the nails had gone straight through his feet. Traci Hayes' back was broken in the storm, but she and her father walked three blocks for help.

"We couldn't drive. The driveway was blocked, and one of the cars was smashed in," she said.

Mayor George Paris, who has led Red Springs for 30 years, said the town looked like a bomb had hit it.

"It's hard to explain. It looked like a war zone," Paris said. "I tell you what (the storm) did do. It made us a stronger community because people had to pull together."

For example, the tornado left a treasured centerpiece of the town, Red Springs Presbyterian Church, in tatters. Bricks were knocked away, and the bell tower was sheared off.

"I saw the Bible was still there on the lectern. It hadn't moved, and it was open to Jeremiah," said Dr. Charles Johnson, a church member who walked amid the ruins that night.

Since then, the pews, the stained glass and the bell tower have all been replaced or rebuilt. Johnson said the church looks exactly as it did before the tornado.

Unlike the church, severe-weather forecasting has changed tremendously in the past 25 years. Doppler radar, computer models and instant communications with the Internet make predicting and warning the public about events like the tornado outbreak easier.

A 1984 congressional hearing in Rocky Mount about the tornado outbreak helped jump-start federal funding for more and better forecasting tools and for a network of weather spotters. Fishel testified at the hearing, and he said improved technology has made severe-weather forecasting more precise.

"We are starting to warn smarter, educating schools and business of the specific path of the storm. Not everyone may need to take shelter, but some schools and businesses need to shelter and to get to it quickly," he said.

Still, people in Red Springs look back at the March 1984 tornado and wonder if Tanya Baxley could have been saved.

"Things that could have happened, (God) prevented from happening by taking her that night," Oxendine said. "That's what God is – he's a loving God."

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  • deepriver Mar 27, 2009

    I will never forget that day, listening to Greg Fishel warning about the possible weather that we could be getting. Since then whenever Greg warns of bad weather, my family pays close attention.

  • daMoFo Mar 27, 2009

    In Fayetteville we had hail the size of tennis balls. I have pics to prove it. The next morning, I was driving to Pembroke State Univ. and we were routed around downtown Red Springs but you could easily see the damage to the town.

  • lroyal10900 Mar 27, 2009

    I was in 7th grade and remember it like it was yesterday. It passed within less than a quarter mile of our house...we actually heard the tornado as it passed--not realizing what it was. Seeing our neighbors destroyed houses the next morning and the next week as we were able to get out and about will stick with me forever. We missed 2 weeks of school---no power---and used the water from the drainage ditch in front of our house to fill the toilets up so we could flush!

  • jkca Mar 27, 2009

    Wow, I remember that storm like it was yesterday. (I was just 19 years old?????????) What a scary evening. I've never seen the sky that black before in my life.

  • rtwdesigns Mar 27, 2009

    That particular evening 25 yrs ago marked a turning point in our area's weather patterns. Not a year goes by that I don't reflect on that evening because it is my birthday. A few weeks later, my husband and I drove down thru' the disaster area and thanked our lucky stars since we lived near RDU and was spared the full brunt of that particular outbreak. And from that day forward, we became novice storm chasers and devout fans of Greg Fishel. And after the infamous Thanksgiving wkend twister, we were amazed that we were less than half a mile from its path. THANK YOU, Greg! We are so very lucky to have you, sir.
    Renee