Worst Tornadoes In North Carolina: A Historical Overview

May 30, 2024

North Carolina's history with tornadoes is both extensive and intense, with nearly 1,500 reported tornadoes since 1950. Their occurrence shows a notable seasonal trend, with about one-third happening in April and May. Averaging 30 tornadoes per year over the last 30 years, the majority occur east of Charlotte.

Measurement and Classification

Tornadoes are measured using the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, which ranges from EF-0 to EF-5 based on damage and wind speeds. This scale replaced the original Fujita Scale in 2007. Historical records indicate that North Carolina has never experienced an EF5 tornado, with the strongest ever reaching F4 on the legacy scale.

North Carolina Records

The state has documented several significant tornadoes but none as an EF4 in the enhanced scale. A dozen tornadoes have been classified as F4, with the most remarkable being a tornado that travelled 83 miles through west and north Raleigh, with winds likely exceeding 165 mph.

Notable Tornadoes in North Carolina

North Carolina's tornado history includes some particularly notable events:

Strongest and Longest Track Tornadoes

On November 23, 1992, a tornado with a track of 160 miles from Harnett County to Elizabeth City was recorded. This tornado, classified as an F3, likely consisted of multiple tornadoes spawned from the same supercell.

Widest Tornadoes

The widest tornadoes struck on March 28, 1984, part of an outbreak that saw 14 tornadoes in one day. The widest reached over 2,600 yards (1.5 miles) and affected Scotland, Robeson, and Cumberland counties. Other significant wide tornadoes include an F4 in Scotland County (2,100 yards) and another in Sampson, Duplin, and Wayne counties (1,407 yards).

"Tornado" by Frank Peters is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.

Deadliest and Most Destructive

The deadliest tornado on record hit on March 28, 1984, part of the same outbreak that produced the widest tornado. This F4 tornado caused 16 deaths and 153 injuries in Lenoir, Greene, and Pitt counties. Other deadly tornadoes, causing 12 fatalities each, occurred during an F3 tornado on March 28, 1984, and an EF3 tornado on April 16, 2011, affecting Bladen/Cumberland/Sampson counties and Bertie/Hertford counties respectively.

Major Tornado Outbreaks

North Carolina has experienced several significant tornado outbreaks:

Largest Single-Day Outbreak

On April 16, 2011, the state experienced a record of 32 tornadoes due to a multi-day weather system, making it the largest outbreak in a single day in North Carolina's history.

Busiest Year

The year 2004 marked the busiest year with 67 tornadoes, many driven by the remnants of tropical systems including hurricanes.

Active Seasons

Some active seasons include spring 1998 with 20 tornadoes on May 7, summer 2004 with 35 tornadoes largely related to hurricane activity, and fall 2018 with 31 tornadoes around Hurricane Florence.

Tornado Distribution by Category

A significant majority of North Carolina’s tornadoes are less severe, with about 80% classified as either F0/EF0 or F1/EF1.

Legacy Fujita Scale (1950-2006)

  • F-0: 381 tornadoes
  • F-1: 410 tornadoes
  • F-2: 161 tornadoes
  • F-3: 29 tornadoes
  • F-4: 12 tornadoes
  • F-5: 0 tornadoes

Enhanced Fujita Scale (2007-2022)

  • EF-0: 251 tornadoes
  • EF-1: 162 tornadoes
  • EF-2: 55 tornadoes
  • EF-3: 11 tornadoes
  • EF-4: 0 tornadoes
  • EF-5: 0 tornadoes

Understanding the history and characteristics of tornadoes in North Carolina is crucial for accurate assessment and preparedness. While the state has fortunately never encountered an EF5 tornado, the frequency and impact of lesser tornadoes remain significant, underscoring the need for ongoing research and vigilance.

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