Please note this article first appeared in the May 1996 edition of MARA NEWS
Raleigh, NC, April 19, 1996.
No one was killed by the tornadoes that hit the Raleigh, North Carolina suburb of Zebulon on Monday night, April 15th. Ho-hum, just another lightweight tornado nothing to get excited about. It's the killer tornadoes that make big news... until you look a little deeper and see WHY there were only a few minor injuries and no fatalities from a series of tornadoes that damaged or destroyed nearly 100 homes at dinnertime. Eyewitness reports of the tornadoes on the Amateur Radio SKYWARN network, intercepted and broadcast by Raleigh TV stations, gave many people the few minutes they needed to take cover. The SKYWARN network is a voluntary effort by Amateur Radio operators and other weather spotters, working in cooperation with the National Weather Service.
AB4EN's Account of the Zebulon Tornadoes
by Don Flowers, AB4EN
I had never seen a tornado before. I had taken spotter training and knew what to look for, and have even been on the scene just seconds after a tornado touchdown in eastern Wilson county several years ago. But I have never experienced what happened on Monday, April 15th, 1996. The Raleigh Skywarn was in active mode on the 146.880 repeater that evening as I left work just after 5PM. There had been a severe thunderstorm watch in effect for most of the day, and tornado activity had occurred earlier in the day in the Kinston area. The Raleigh NWS radar was also down, and Noble, N4UOQ, who was liaison with the Raleigh NWS, was informing everyone that amateur weather spotters would be heavily relied upon for severe weather reports. Shortly after 5PM, a funnel cloud was spotted near Jordan Lake, moving northeast. There was a flurry of activity as reports came in for several minutes until the storm seemed to dissipate. I was almost home now, just a few miles northwest of Zebulon. It was nearing 6PM, and attention was focusing on an area in Johnston County. The Skywarn net control, Gary, KN4AQ, was seeking reports for the NWS from northern Johnston county for severe weather. It was getting dark in the southwest from my location, but nothing unusual....yet. Ron, KE4KFZ, reported heavy rain from the Archers Lodge community in north Johnston County. Then a few minutes later, Ron returned with a report of a wall cloud with funnel and rotation. Ron went mobile for a better view, but the funnel was being obscured by rain. As the funnel neared Wendell, Ron and several other spotters chasing the storm said they thought the funnel was descending. I got the family into the hallway in the middle of the house and covered them with pillows. I grabbed another battery and antenna and positioned myself on the deck of our house facing the southwest. There were very ragged and dark clouds approaching extremely fast, with an almost horizontal rolling appearance. The I saw what was obviously a large funnel cloud on the heels of the rolling cloud formation, but not moving quite as fast. It was moving north northeast around 40 mph as best I could determine. I could see from the angle it was moving that it would pass just east of us. I initially couldn't see rotation It was now almost due south of me, and I could see large 5 foot long sheets of tin caught up in the CCW rotation of the tornado about 200 feet in the air. I immediately called the net control with emergency traffic and made the report of a tornado on the ground, about a mile northwest of Zebulon near highway 96 and 64. It was now moving almost parallel with highway 96. I could see it had just crossed highway 97 and then 64. Johnny, WA9SZL of Wendell, almost simultaneously called net control with the same report, except he was almost directly under the tornado. He said debris was falling all around his vehicle and he was jumping out of the vehicle seeking cover. I could now hear trees cracking in the woods about a quarter mile to the east of me. There was no wind at all at my location, however. There were bluegreen lightning flashes from just under the base of the tornado a few hundred feet up, but there was little or no thunder heard. The tornado seemed to be a couple hundred yards wide at tree top level, with a hundred foot or so path of destruction at the ground, as best I could tell from my vantage point. Just as soon as it was past, I jumped in the truck and went about a half mile to the northeast of my home. The road was blocked with a tree and a power line stretched across the road. I could see at least three houses with heavy damage. One barn was totally flattened. I checked for injuries at two of the three houses, but before I could get to the third I heard Ron calling net control with a report of another tornado in his area heading toward Zebulon. I backed up the road to an overpass over highway 64. I could see the path the first tornado had left across the four lane highway. Several cars had pulled off the road and the occupants were in the ditch. I could see another tornado, smaller than the first, to the south, following almost the exact same path as the other one had except a few hundred feet farther to the east. I backed off the bridge and pulled just off the road ready to jump in a ditch. I could see now that it was going to miss me, however, so I stood there, again watching the second tornado pass by. The Skywarn net control was bombarded with reports almost at once describing the second twister. I tried to transmit at the first opening, but found my handheld display locked up. Apparently keys had been touched during the commotion, setting my UHF vfo to scan and out of band. This locked up my radio on 2 meters as well. I wasn't transmitting. I probably wouldn't have been heard anyway though, there was a virtual pile up on the repeater. This second twister was much more sharply defined. There was no doubt about rotation with this twister even though I saw no debris. It was a smaller tornado, and seemed to be moving a bit faster than the first one. Shortly, it was gone. I went quickly back to the house that I had been unable to check on earlier. The front porch was gone. One huge oak tree was partially through the middle of the roof. I could see two-foot wide trees cleanly snapped off at about 15 feet in height, and in a path about 100 feet wide through the woods behind the house. Dozens of pieces of tin lay strewn across the fields surrounding me. A man walked out from around the back of the house. He was OK and was the only one home. Emergency vehicles began to arrive, and the roads all around me were blocked with trees. I returned home to find my power off This was an experience I will never forget. I so greatly appreciate the spotters that saw the tornadoes in their earliest stages before they touched ground, and for the net control stations and liaisons that make Skywarn work. We knew the tornadoes were approaching and exactly which direction they were traveling.