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Submitted by Tim Buckley on Wed, 04/20/2011 - 9:39am.
It takes a lot of hard work to figure out just how many tornadoes actually touched down after a major storm like this one, but the numbers are in, and they are record breaking. After sifting through the damage, the National Weather Service has confirmed 26 individual tornado touchdowns across the state Saturday. This sets a new record for most tornadoes on a single day in North Carolina history.
This map really tells the story. Each little red line you're looking at represents the path of a tornado. You'll notice that some of them are quite small, like in Columbus County - where the two tornadoes that touched-down barely even traveled a full mile. But others are big and devastating, especially the huge path of the EF-3 tornado that ripped through the Sanford Lowes and eventually into Raleigh traveling a whopping 63 miles. That's lightyears by tornado standards.
The outbreak did surpass records that were previously held by the March 1984 outbreak when 22 tornadoes paved a path of destruction through the eastern half of the state. That system caused widespread devastation and an unbelievable 42 deaths. While this year's event was again tragic, we lost far fewer lives than in '84 due in large part to the average warning time of 20-30 minutes by the NWS. As we know, a few minutes can be the difference between life and death in a situation like this.
It takes a lot of work to figure out what really happened when storms like this roll through. Storm survey crews are dispatched by the NWS to be detectives on the ground, determining what kind of storm struck and how strong it actually was. You can think of it as the "CSI" of meteorology. In fact, the science of determining what kind of weather caused certain damage is known as "Forensic Meteorology".
When they go and look at the damage, the crews are first looking to make sure that there actually was a tornado. You can tell by looking at the pattern of destruction. For example, a severe thunderstorm with straight line winds would cause trees to fall all in the same direction in the woods. A tornado on the other hand, would send these trees in multiple directions due to the rotational winds. Meteorologists are looking for this pattern when they go out into the field.
Once you confirm there actually was a tornado. You then need to assess the damage and give the storm a rating. For that, we use the Enhanced-Fujita Scale, which ranges from EF-0 to EF-5. An EF-0 would contain minor roof damage, or branches down - while an EF-5 would be incredible destruction of buildings and homes.
Now that we're closing the chapter on this historic severe weather event, let's hope that the rest of the Spring is kind to us here in the Tar Heel State!
By: Tim Buckley