George Leach was asleep until just before a 29-year-old sycamore tree toppled onto his house Thursday evening.
“Whatever hit, man, it was like a truck came through here with the muffler blown out,” said Leach, a property manager. “I went ‘Lord have mercy, what was that?’”
What it was, meteorologists said, was a tornado that touched down in the Hope Valley area of Durham just after 6 p.m. It toppled trees and tore loose power lines, leaving more than 5,400 Duke Energy customers without electricity.
“Based on what we saw on the radar, we’re pretty sure it was a tornado,” said Ryan Ellis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh. The storm cell seemed to rotate and tighten in that area, he said. Plus, the NWS now has a device to check what’s known as the correlation coefficient, which tells meteorologists when debris is airborne.
“A little later, we noticed a signature that made us believe there was debris lofted into the air,” Ellis said. “Based on reports, it was mostly trees and power lines. No buildings.”
Trees blocked sections of Hope Valley Road and University Drive, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Police reported a tree fell on a car on Weaver Street and another struck a house on Alpine Road. Street flooding also proved to be a problem in places like Bahama and Rougemont, and remained a concern during the night.
Luckily, no injuries were reported and no homes appear to have been struck directly by the tornado.
Durham resident Stephanie Finn was driving home from her job at Duke University when the wind started blowing fiercely at the intersection of MLK and Hope Valley.
“The wind kept blowing harder and harder and the leaves seemed to be blowing in odd directions,” she said. The traffic signal went dead. A transformer exploded in a streak of lightning. “At this point, I was very afraid for my safety and gunned it to get out of there.”
She drove to the nearby Walmart to wait out the storm.
Back at Leach’s house, his son Marlon went to work with a chainsaw on the top of the sycamore tree, which damaged a car and punched three holes through the roof.
“You got holes,” Marlon called down. “They ain’t no small holes. They’re gaping holes.”
Leach said he intended to remain in his house, but had another place to stay if that proved impossible.
Mark Schell, an emergency management coordinator for Durham County, said most other people in damaged homes said they had a place to stay, but a couple sought Red Cross assistance.
The strength of the tornado won’t be known until NWS investigators get on the scene Friday, Ellis said.
Some rain may linger in the morning, but the weather should clear later Friday with a high around 75 degrees, he said. The weekend should be mostly dry