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84 MILES OF DESTRUCTION
Submitted by Jerry Jackson on Mon, 11/22/2010 - 5:27pm.
As many of you know, I'm a graduate of North Carolina State University. The campus has changed quite a bit in the years since I graduated, with new research facilities popping-up on the Centennial Campus. When I was a student, the "center of operations" for the meteorology program was Jordan Hall, located on the main campus. Built in the 1980's along Western Boulevard, Jordan Hall was an imposing sight to an impressionable young meteorology major.
If you stood on the roof (which was used as launching point for weather balloon research), you could easily see the unique architecture of the glass library at street-level. From this high vantage point, the Jordan Hall library resembled a series of ocean waves crashing against the building. The top floor of Jordan housed our primary meteorology lab. I remember getting my first key-code combination for the entrance (only the seniors were allowed access to the primary forecasting center). Inside that room lay some of the most powerful computers of the time, and one heck of a view of the Raleigh skyline.
On warm summer nights, I would often walk several blocks to Jordan Hall and ascend to the top floor observation deck. The lab was usually quiet after 10 PM, so you could turn off the lights without bothering anyone. It was here that I spent many an hour watching thunderstorms roll through. Here, I had an unobstructed view of the most fascinating displays of lightning. Purple flashes bathed the lab room in ethereal pastels- the kind of half light you experience in dreams. It was beautiful, and a good reminder for me that "weather" is not created by man. Therefore, "weather" does not always obey the forecast model conventions devised by man.
Such was the case with a deadly tornado that struck Raleigh in November of 1988. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, an unusually warm air mass was settling into the Piedmont courtesy of an incoming warm front. Temperatures remained well above normal deep into the night, as a low pressure trough intensified east of the Appalachians. Forecasters realized the set-up was unusual, but conditions didn't appear to be particularly dangerous. At the very least, major tornadoes did not seem likely.
Just before 1 AM on November 28, an F4 tornado touched down near Umstead State Park and proceeded to carve an 84 mile-long damage path across five counties. The heaviest damage was in suburban Raleigh. Winds over 207 mph destroyed major businesses and damaged at least 2000 homes. By the time the storm died, 4 people were dead, 157 people were injured, and $77 million dollars in property damage occurred. In the years since the event, several meteorological theories have been proposed as to the origin of the storm. Many of these theories revolve around ideas such as gravity waves, or polar/subtropical jet stream interactions. The full answer may never be known.
In our forecasting lab at Jordan Hall, there resided an aerial view of a local K-Mart that was destroyed during the 1988 tornado. It was a reminder to all meteorologists, past and present, that we know many things. But we don't know everything...
By: Jerry Jackson