Proximity underscores tornado’s potential for harm

May. 17, 2014 @ 05:40 PM

What’s with this weather, anyway?

This area is no stranger to tornadoes, and we’ve seen the destruction that it could bring.

Most memorably, at least in recent history, was March 28, 1984, when 24 tornadoes swept through the state, especially in eastern North Carolina, killing 57 people and injuring more than 1,200.  The storm took, as tornadoes are wont to do, a heavy toll on mobile homes – and did serious damage to East Carolina University.

Just last month, we experienced the highest number of tornadoes to hit North Carolina in a single day – 31, with 16 of them fairly powerful. Even though many of those skirted urban areas, including Raleigh, injuries and damage were relatively slight.

I mention all this because when the tornado warnings begin beeping through our newsroom – and homes and businesses throughout Durham – Thursday shortly after 6 p.m., it seemed worthwhile to take it seriously. 

The shrillest warnings were coming from smart phones around the room, receiving the wireless carriers’ greatly appreciated insistent alerts for severe weather.  Our Triangle television meteorologists, too, were doing their yeopersons’ duty of blasting out the alerts.

We probably don’t think about it, but the proliferation of alerts – and better forecasting abilities – has done a great deal to temper the bodily harm and death from tornadoes. There’s not much that can be done about your house if it’s in a twister’s path, but we have much more time to seek cover than just a decade or so ago.

Some of my coworkers Thursday evening, I think, were a bit skeptical of my insistence that we shut down our press and ensure that everyone sought shelter in a ground-floor, concrete-enclosed area of our building. We suffered no ill effects here at the paper, but the reported touchdown that did a fair amount of damage (but caused no injuries, thankfully) around Hope Valley Road, University Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard is only a mile or so away.

My own appreciation of the power of tornadoes comes in large part from Owensboro in early January 2000. A twister that swept through the city in the late afternoon damaged more than 200 houses – destroying many – knocked out power to large swathes of town and left tons of debris to be cleared away. Fortunately, the few injuries were only minor.

But seeing the devastation that it wreaked, especially as the sun rose the next morning, was chilling. It also brought to mind that my colleagues and I had not displayed the greatest wisdom the evening before.

As the tornado siren sounded and the skies darkened to what seemed like midnight gloom in the late afternoon, we stood by the 20-foot high plate glass windows in the lobby of our building. Wow, we thought, it looks pretty ferocious out there.

We later learned that the tornado’s path had been perhaps 8 to 10 blocks south of our office (and in another part of town passed maybe a quarter-mile from my house). Kentucky Wesleyan College, a small liberal arts college, was on the same street as our office – and among other things, had the roof of the president’s house, a two-story brick home, sheared completely off by the wind.

We were spared, but barely, any consequences of our foolhardiness in standing in front of the window. But evermore, company policy there has dictated heading to the concrete-enclosed, windowless newsprint storage area during a tornado warning.

It was a lesson much on my mind Thursday evening. And one I hope all you have heeded and will heed when those tornado warnings sound.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.