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Tornado stirs memories of earlier storms

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Yesterday's storms have reminded many of the devastating March 1984 "Red Springs" tornadoes and the 1988 Thanksgiving weekend storm that flattened North Raleigh. Here are some recollections of those storms on their recent anniversaries.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall; Staff Writer

RALEIGH -- Twenty years ago, Sunday, Nov. 27, 1988, marked the end of a festive Thanksgiving weekend.

The turkey was all gone. Christmas was around the corner. And North Raleigh was getting ready for work and school the next morning.

But late that night, a loud thunderstorm lit up the roiling sky. Thunder and high winds shook people awake soon after midnight.

Ron Baker, who lived in The Wedges in the Greystone neighborhood, lay in bed, watching the night sky turn ghastly colors about 1 a.m. Monday.

"It was like a real bright red, " he recalled recently. "Then I heard the roar."

The sound, which he compared to a 747 jet engine, was the noise from a powerful tornado that plowed diagonally across North Raleigh, killing two children, 20 years ago this Friday.

"I knew what it was, " said Baker, who grew up in the Midwest. "I saw it coming and I just went to the bathroom and laid face down."

"Just picture a giant picking up your house and shaking it as hard as he can and then he sets it down and stops, " he said.

"You kind of feel like you're floating with all the shaking going on and the noise. It didn't last very long, but you thought it was never going to get out of there."

Just down the street from Baker's home, a 12-year-old boy died when the storm destroyed his house. And others in Greystone were looking for a baby who had flown out of his house and landed safely near a tree trunk, where debris covered him.

A 9-year-old girl in the Hampton Oaks neighborhood died when she was trapped in her bed under a collapsed chimney.

There aren't any obvious reminders of The Raleigh Tornado for the newcomers who have more than doubled the city's population since then.

For its survivors, the Nov. 15 tornado in Johnston and Wilson counties was just another reminder of the damage the Raleigh twister caused and the months it took to rebuild.

For many, when bad storms are in the forecast or disaster strikes elsewhere, the memories return.

Other storms a time warp

"In a way, you're kind of stuck in a time warp every now and then, " said Jay Shapiro, who was at home with his baby granddaughter, nephew and his now ex-wife when the tornado struck. The winds tore off his garage and exterior walls of his home, turning it into a giant doll house.

"You're kind of transported back, " Shapiro said. "You think about it, and you can smell it almost."

Shapiro remembers all the people who helped him recover. He donates money to The Salvation Army because of memories of the coffee and doughnuts truck that came through his neighborhood after days of hauling debris to the curb.

And he wishes he knew the name of the woman who drove by in her station wagon one day and gave him a half dozen cardboard boxes with packing tape for what was left of his belongings.

"I think of her every time I think of that tornado and I wish I could thank her, " he said.

Since then, Shapiro has done what he can to help the survivors of other disasters.

An 84-mile monster

The tornado formed over Raleigh-Durham International Airport and first touched down in William B. Umstead State Park. It moved northeast, crossing Glenwood Avenue near Millbrook Road, churning up neighborhoods and shopping centers in its path.

A Kmart at the Townridge Square Shopping Center on Glenwood Avenue was demolished as three employees ducked for cover. One was rescued after being trapped under debris for two hours.

The tornado would churn 84 miles on the ground before petering out in Northampton County near Roanoke Rapids.

Four people died that night, including a couple huddled together in a Nash County trailer. Their two children survived. More than 150 people were injured and hundreds were left homeless.

Shapiro said a hunter found an old paycheck of his in Louisburg.

The sanctuary at Asbury United Methodist Church off Creedmoor Road was badly damaged. The church met at Millbrook High School as it was rebuilt.

"One of the things that the tornado reminded us of as a church is that the church is the people, and not the building, " said Pam Harris, a long-time member who lives next to it in the Hidden Valley West neighborhood. "That was just a lesson for the kids and a reminder for the adults, too."

North Carolina's November weather can spawn tornadoes: cold weather followed by warm air or unseasonable warm temperatures ahead of a cold front. Deadly tornadoes have struck North Carolina in the Novembers of 1992, 2006 and this year.

"If you look at all of the tornadoes that we've had that have caused fatalities, I would say the majority of them, the big ones, have happened in November and during the overnight period, " said Brandon Vincent, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh.

Needed: weather radios

Vincent recommends that people buy weather radios that can sound alarms for specific emergencies. He considers them as important as smoke detectors.

Shapiro has an old weather radio, though it's not turned on. Other survivors said they haven't made any major changes.

The memories remain. But life has moved on, too.

In Paul Woolverton's backyard, the tornado bent a tree. He left it there, and his kids started to play on it.

"It's about the only tree in the yard they could actually climb on, " he said. "I was going to take it down when they grew up, and then the grandchildren started playing on it. So I decided to leave it there. It's still there."

November is a fairly common time for killer tornadoes, as warm, moist coastal air collides with strong cold fronts sweeping in from the northwest, said Jeff Orrock, warning coordinator at the National Weather Service's Raleigh office.

November tornadoes often are deadly, Orrock said, partly because they usually hit at night when most people are sleeping and unaware of the threat.

"Not many people have a weather radio to wake them up, " Orrock said. "A lot of people aren't going to be aware of [tornadoes] until they're on top of them."

Since Raleigh's 1988 tornado, three other fatal twisters have struck North Carolina:

-Nov. 23, 1992: An F-3 tornado in Orange County strikes Hillsborough about 2:20 a.m., killing two people, injuring 10, and causing about $2 million in damage in less than 10 minutes.

-Nov. 16, 2006: An early-morning F-3 tornado kills eight people and injures 20 in the Columbus County community of Riegelwood, near Wilmington.

-Nov. 15, 2008: An F-2 tornado touches down about 2:30 a.m. in Johnston County just east of Interstate 95, killing 61-year-old Maryland Gomez of Kenly. It plows northeast into Wilson County, strengthening to an F-3 and killing 11-year-old Joshua Wiggins of Elm City. In all, the twister destroys 18 homes, damages 41 others, and renders more than 100 people homeless.

Compiled by news researcher Lamara Williams and editor Matthew Eisley.

By Steve Lyttle, The Charlotte Observer

Dixon Odom recalls that March 28, 1984, dawned as a "beautiful morning."

"The sun was shining, it was warm, " says Odom, longtime fire chief in Bennettsville, S.C.

By the end of that day, Odom was helping oversee a recovery and rescue operation in what meteorologists consider the worst tornado outbreak in Carolinas history.

It happened March 28, 1984 - 25 years ago today.

The National Weather Service says severe thunderstorms and possibly tornadoes are forecast for much of the Southeast today. But forecasters say today's storm system pales in comparison to the one 25 years ago.

Twenty-four tornadoes crushed the countryside that day on a path from the South Carolina-Georgia border, then northward through the Sandhills and coastal plain of North Carolina.

By the time the last tornado moved into the Atlantic Ocean, 57 people were dead - 42 in North Carolina, 15 in South Carolina - and more than 800 injured.


"It was a classic major tornado outbreak, " says Lara Pagano, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Raleigh.

None of the two dozen twisters reached F5 level on the Fujita scale, the strongest classification of tornadoes. But there were seven F4 storms, with winds of up to 260 mph, including a twister that rumbled through Bennettsville, S.C., where Odom was on duty as assistant fire chief when the storms struck.LOUDER THAN A SIREN

"We had been sounding our sirens since 2 in the afternoon, when they issued a tornado watch, " he recalls. "About 6:30 p.m., they issued a warning, so we started sounding a different siren alert."

Odom says the storm was so loud that he couldn't hear the siren.

"A few minutes later, we started getting calls from the boys who live on the north side of town, " he says.

That is where the Northwoods Shopping Center stood. A mile-wide funnel cloud roared through the shopping center and a nearby apartment complex, leveling them in seconds. Most of the seven deaths and 100 injuries in the Bennettsville area happened there.

"We couldn't get to the scene from the center of town, because of the damage, " Odom recalls. "We got crews to arrive from the north, from Rockingham and Hamlet [in North Carolina's Richmond County]."

Odom called nearby Robeson County, across the border in North Carolina, and asked for help. But people there were busy. Another F4 twister had hit, damaging nearly every building in the town of Red Springs.

"The downtown area was ripped apart, " recalls Martha Pearson, who works in the town's billing department. "It was absolutely amazing."

That tornado killed four and injured 395.

Earlier, a tornado roared across Interstate 77, flattening trees in a quarter-mile-wide path that motorists traveling between Charlotte and Columbia could see for years afterward.

Meteorologists say the tornado outbreak was the result of a familiar set of circumstances - a strong low-pressure system, and strong winds blowing from different directions at various levels of the atmosphere, creating a twisting motion.

Pagano says many newcomers to the Carolinas think of killer tornadoes as a Midwest phenomenon.

"But they can happen here-and they have, " she says.


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