Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
The Brunswick County tornado that tore through a 22-mile swath near the North Carolina coast, killing three people, injuring 10 others and damaging at least 60 properties last week, created economic devastation that may take weeks or months to determine.
Downed trees and house debris littered an upscale golf course community in Ocean Isle on Friday afternoon, four days after the largest tornado ever recorded in Brunswick County, where winds of nearly 160 mph destroyed several homes in the Ocean Ridge Plantation before eventually dissipating in a logging forest near the northern county line.
The storm’s total economic impact is not yet known due to pending insurance claims, debris cleanup and the number of trees destroyed in timberland areas, said Brunswick County Emergency Director Ed Conrow, who estimated at least eight homes were destroyed in the Ocean Ridge community — homes with all walls collapsed or with enough damage to require removal.
Damage to the electric grid will likely exceed $500,000, according to the spokesperson for county’s public utility company, Brunswick Electric Membership Corp.
“Over 30 spans were down, including damage to 20,000 linear feet of wire. Nine transmission structures were damaged along with several broken distribution poles,” Chief Operating Officer Corey Thurlow said.
The company reported more than 37,000 of its customers without power an hour after the tornado dissipated, covering “the whole south end of the county,” according to Conrow. By noon the next day, that number had decreased to 3,000.
Unique storm circumstances
The tornado was exceptional for one in the coastal Carolinas, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Pfaff, who serves as the warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS office in Wilmington. He estimated 75% of Carolina tornadoes are classified as EF0 or EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale of five used to measure tornados. EF1 tornados top speeds of 110 mph.
“Tornadoes that hit EF3 or higher account for 6%. That’s a staggering number. It really shows the anomaly of this tornado’s intensity,” Pfaff said.
Additionally, the tornado’s swath of damage measured about 275 yards wide at peak intensity — three times wider than what his office typically sees in the region — while the path of destruction was 22 miles in length, more than four times longer than what is typical. The tornado also hit outside of two “tornadic peaks,” occurring from April to June and September to October.
The tornado was spawned by a massive winter storm system that barreled through Texas and the Southeast, delaying more than 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from reaching North Carolina officials for statewide distribution.
The Feb. 15 thunderstorm approached the southeastern coastline of North Carolina near Ocean Isle Beach late that evening, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a severe thunderstorm warning at 11:33 p.m. According to Pfaff, NWS forecasters at that time expected winds “in excess of 60 miles per hour” with damage to trees and power lines.
“Then a radar scan came in of this rotation quickly developing down toward the ground surface that prompted the tornado warning [at 11:39 p.m.],” Pfaff said. “It didn’t come onshore as a tornado; this thing cranked up after it moved onshore.”
He said the storm’s circular winds had slowed to nearly zero mph when it struck the coast, then escalated to “an intense rotation within a matter of minutes.”
NWS reports showed the tornado touched down at 11:34 p.m. — a minute after the weather agency issued its initial severe thunderstorm warning and five minutes before it issued its first tornado warning — roughly three miles inland, sparing the Sea Trail Golf Resort just to the south. It strengthened from initial wind speeds of 80 mph while moving rapidly northeast over a swamp, overturning several recreational vehicles and damaging a church near a highway.
Although numerous RVs were upended, Conrow said, nobody was in them at the time. The tornado came within several hundred feet from a KOA campground “that was occupied,” according to Conrow. When it entered the Ocean Ridge Plantation, rotating winds had doubled in velocity, reaching at least 160 mph.
“Here the tornado became exceptionally powerful as it damaged or destroyed a large number of well-built homes,” according to an NWS survey. “Debris from one home was swept completely clear of the foundation.”
Debbie Cross, who lives roughly 500 feet from where the incident took place, said her neighbors’ home “was lifted up and completely collapsed on another one.”
She said husband and wife Richard and Phyllis O’Connor were killed when the home broke from its foundation. A blanket quilted by Mrs. O’Connor was found in a driveway in Ash, about nine miles to the north.
Sounding the alarm
Brunswick resident Dave Powers said he was watching television with his wife and son when he told them to run to the master bedroom.
“I got up to turn the fireplace off and I heard this roar, like a train coming through the house,” Powers said. “The lights went off, and I got disoriented. I ended up in the kitchen between the refrigerator and the stove, laying there as the whole house was shaking. Glass was breaking around me, and lamps were falling over. Then, as quick as it hit, it was gone.”
While Cross said she received a news alert moments before her back windows blew out, Powers said he received no warning before his house was hit.
Asked if the NWS could have warned people sooner, Pfaff emphasized the challenge of forecasting a storm that strengthened rapidly once it reached land, then moved northeastward at a rate of 60 mph. He also stated that many people who talked to an NWS team surveying damage said they were alerted by the severe thunderstorm warning.
“It happened so fast,” Pfaff said. “I think at the rate at which it intensified, the team did the best it could with what was at hand in front of them.”
“Within minutes it exploded from a small thunderstorm to a strong EF3 tornado,” Conrow, the county’s emergency director, added. “This happened at a time when, I think, the messaging didn’t really make a difference. It moved so fast, and most of the people were sleeping. If it came in the spring, when you have thunderstorms [regularly] popping up, most people would have more situational awareness. But this caught a lot of people off guard.”
In total, the NWS issued three tornado warnings: the first at 11:39 p.m., about three minutes after the tornado destroyed three homes in the Ocean Ridge community; the second at 11:48 p.m., when it had reached the central area of the county; and the third at midnight, five minutes before it dissipated near the county line.
But it was the initial thunderstorm warning, issued at 11:33 p.m., that Pfaff believes “helped save lives” as the tornado moved northeast.
Conrow said the tornado’s rapid movement along its southwest-to-northeast trajectory — which caused many Ocean Ridge residents to receive the first tornado warning minutes after it barreled through their community — also minimized its wake of destruction.
“If that storm sat or moved slower, a lot of these houses wouldn’t be standing here,” Conrow said. “They couldn’t have held up in that kind of wind intensity.”