Mecklenburg & Cabarrus County Tornado

Many will not forget the early morning hours of Saturday March 3rd, 2012 in the Reedy Creek neighborhood. Around 2:34am a EF-2 tornado with winds of around 135mph touched down with a path of destruction 200 yards wide and 3.2 miles long. A total of 192 homes were damaged or destroyed in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties. The completed damage survey can be found here.


Approaching Storm system:

It was a long day and night of tracking the Tornado Outbreak to our Northwest and West Friday. I was sending out updates all day and night and around 11:35pm after the news I made note of this radar image seen below. It shows that all the cells heading into the Western Carolinas currently had tornado warnings with them. This didn’t mean that they would continue too, but that these cells would have had a history of procuring tornadoes warnings as they approached.


The 2 super cells in western North Carolina had me worried at first but the ones in Georgia weren’t far from my mind. The 2 cells in Western North Carolina weakened as they moved northeast into the cold wedge over the foothills. The 2 cells in Georgia starting heading right up I-85 towards Charlotte.

3-3-2012 12-11-16 AM

Once they got to the upstate of South Carolina they started bowing out becoming “bow echoes” which made me concerned about straight-line wind damage. Below was the view of the first storm as it approached the Charlotte metro through York County.

The 1st dying supercell:

3-3-2012 12-54-26 AM

Thankfully the above storm just produced lots of lightning and thunder but very little winds around 20-3-4-2012 11-31-57 AM40 mph. What this first storm did though it appears it move the wedge front slightly further north from the SC/NC line to areas just north of Uptown Charlotte. If you look at the hourly observations at the CLT airport you can see how temperatures and dew points went from the low 50s into the upper 50s. The wind also shifted from NW or calm to out of the SW meaning the wedge front shifted north. Placing the eastern part of Mecklenburg and western Cabarrus county in the warm unstable air mass. Or more likely right on the wedge front itself. Which might would have increased the storm relative helicity or wind shear as the 2nd storm moved in from the west. The increased SRH could cause a sudden rotation within the 2nd cell.

The 2nd Storm:

This storm right away looked more serious that storm #1 but not tornadic at first. This was a classic bow echo which meant it looked like a bow from a bow and arrow and was likely going to produce damaging winds of 60mph or higher. In fact the Doppler velocities where showing severe winds with this cell. This was the cell as it approached Uptown Charlotte.


Here’s where I know we are going to get damage this storm is bowing out with 60-70 mph winds at the apex of the bow. At this time I know we should have been under a severe thunderstorm warning at the least and we might have a developing tornado. Though that doesn’t become clear until the next volume scan of the radar. I tweeted the following at 2:32am.

3-4-2012 12-33-48 PM

The next volume scan of the radar I see this!


Radar: TDWR from CLT

I know we might have a tornado forming or on the ground based on this image and I tweet this.

3-4-2012 12-35-58 PM

The whole time I’m using our Ustream account which I have had running since after the 11pm news and I tell those watching this looks bad. Then as the stream is going I get the warning, but it’s for Stanly county which isn’t even where the tornado is? At the same time my Twitter feed is exploding with people reporting power outages in the University, Harrisburg and Mint Hill areas. This is when I know we have damage occurring even if its just trees and power lines. The radar at this point clearly shows a tornado and I detect what appears to be a small debris ball which tells me we have damage occurring.


Source TCLT Doppler Radar

The scanner starts blowing up along with my Twitter and Facebook pages while I’m on TV showing the warning for Stanly County. All along I’m telling people in Cabarrus county to seek shelter because that’s where I know the actual tornado is. I track the storm until about 3:17am when I know the rotation is gone over northern Stanly county. The warning was supposed to go until 3:30am but is canceled early at 3:22am.

Here a link to a Storify from the Twitter & YouTube feed that night & morning:

Here’s how the night unfolding from my Twitter Feed and YouTube updates

When we know its bad:

It would be easy to say we knew around 4-5am but not until close to 6am when our crews were seeing the damage and the sun came up did we know the scope. Airstar 36 started showing the view from the air and I knew we had at least an EF-2 damage from a tornado. More information, video and images on




Why No Warning?

It’s really easy to blame the National Weather Service for not issuing a Tornado warning for Cabarrus County. I don’t think there was time to warn for Mecklenburg due to how fast the tornado spun up. Clearly they are second guessing the process down at the NWS in GSP. I will explain why this happened in a minute, but to me there was no excuse why there shouldn’t have been a Severe Thunderstorm warning in place for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I’ve seen warnings for less around here and the impact on a major metro would make me error on the side of caution. There was clearly 58mph or higher winds with this storm and this warning might have alerted people to the threat of dangerous weather, even without the tornado warning. I don’t like getting into a blame game and in some ways there are many factors that go into the error of the warning that morning. One thing is for sure no one should have been un aware that severe weather was possible overnight. We just lacked the final step in the process of getting a timely warning out via the NWS.

So what happened?

Many factors come into play with the lack of a warning. There are 2 main reasons why I think it happened, both very complicated..

  1. Meteorologically:

    This storm produced a tornado very quickly. Which means there was no sign of a tornado forming until it actually touched down. This meant that Mecklenburg Co. was never going to get a tornado warning but clearly should have been under a severe thunderstorm warning. This tornado formed between volume scans of the Doppler radar. People may think Doppler radar is “LIVE” it really isn’t. It takes one min for the radar to rotating around 360° or 1 RPM. Then depending on the mode it is in it will do that scan at 1-14 different levels of the atmosphere to get what we call a volume scan. So even in a ideal situation the radar operator only gets the data for part of the area every 5-6 minutes. Plus since it’s both nighttime and 2:30am spotters are not useful.

  2. Human Error & Logistics:

    Charlotte is on the border of 3 different NWS forecast offices which I will get into the reasons why in later. For now it is what it is and it leads to warning and watch issues all the time in the Charlotte metro. Think about how warnings are issued fro the Charlotte region and metro. When the people responsible for them live at distances from Uptown Charlotte of Greer,SC 79 miles away, Raleigh, NC 130 miles and Columbia, SC 84 miles away. This also means the Doppler radars being used to scan the skies for tornadoes across our area are looking at the very limits of their capabilities. This means that Charlotte, NC is the biggest city in the United states without a Doppler radar located within the acceptable range of the radar. We do have a Terminal Doppler radar located near Mountain Island Lake owned by the FAA to help cover the CLT airport. It has limitations & means the NWS must flip between 2 sources of radar data.


The lack of a radar and the area being split between offices makes for a coordination nightmare. All three of these offices have their own Doppler radar which they primarily look at. All of them are too far away to see the lowest levels of storms around Charlotte. So they flip between the TDWR near Charlotte which has limitations of it’s own but at least its here. Lucky for us we at NewsChannel 36 have our own c-band radar in Dallas, NC to see storms around Charlotte. This helps me see things and you but I can’t issue tornado warnings that make weather radios, texts, emails and sirens go off. Which in this case being the middle of the night was needed. Unless you were awake watching TV or on-line with me you had no idea this was coming.

Political Reasons:

So how did we end up with Charlotte not only not having a local NWS office but also a Doppler radar? Politics? Maybe? The National Weather Service used to have many more offices including one right here in Charlotte. There also was an early radar here but not the modern 88-WRD that are in use today. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the weather service started to modernize. The modern Doppler radars were coming out and the Federal government wanted to consolidate offices. This was necessary to save some money but also because the modern technology allowed for covering larger areas. So the offices went from covering 10-20 counties to 40-80 counties in some cases. GSP went from a 10 county area to 46. In most of the country that meant the offices were consolidated into new offices close to large metro regions to maximize the coverage of higher population densities. Except for here in Charlotte which should have been the home of the new consolidated office. It might not have been at the airport but in one of the surrounding counties maybe even Rock Hill to cover both North and South Carolina. Like all local projects politics likely played a roll in the office being moved to Greer, SC. Just like senators and congress persons fight over which military bases get shut down or where other federal money goes. The stronger more influential politician usually wins. In this case in 1995 the winning location for the new consolidated office ended up being Greer, SC and not anywhere near Charlotte. In 1995 South Carolina had one of the most power senators around….. Strom Thurmond who just so happen to be born and raised in Edgefield, SC in the upstate of South Carolina.

How do we fix the problem?

I for one don’t think you are going to get a NWS office here in Charlotte, that doesn’t make sense. The county watch areas do need to be adjusted so that metro counties are not split between 3 offices. I also strongly feel like we need a stand alone National Weather Service Doppler radar built here around Charlotte. It would be really easy to replace the TDWR or upgrade that location with full modern Dual-Pol Doppler radar that everyone would have access to. This in my opinion would help solve not only the tornado warning issues but a whole bunch of forecasting issues in Western North Carolina.

What do you think? Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comment section below.

  • Arleigh Jenkins

    Great summary Brad, I’m glad no one was hurt in this but it does seem you guys have some of the hardest news jobs there is.

  • Thank You so much for your coverage thru this past week. I don’t live anywhere near the area that was hit but I did winder why they were not warned. I think somthing needs to be done so that people will know if something is coming. Like you said by the time it happened most people were in bed and not watching tv or online following you, so therefore they needed some alarms and sirens to go off. I also understand that it formed and came out of the sky very rapidly, which wasn’t no one’s fault, but clearly something needs to be done so this doesn’t happen again. Tornado’s use to never happen, but in the last several yrs they have been. Just last April, I got a phone call to get up cause we had bad weather coming, my parents in VA were warned, but us in Ashe County were not, it wasn’t lnog before my ears got to popping and I heard the train sound, it didn’t touch down but it was clearly rotating over our house and fixing to, as it went north it did eventually touch down, but no one reported it. When I got up the next morning, it had sucked things out of our yard and the neighbors yard up into the trees, where they still are today. Anyway i’m behind you that something needs to be done and maybe the governor will see to it!!!!

  • Brad…I think the idea of a Dual-Pol in Charlotte would be awesome…not only would it be of great benefit to the Charlotte Metro area but there are plenty other areas in North Carolina that are on the fringes. That 421 cooridor from Wilkes County to Winston-Salem is an example of being stuck between forecasting offices. Davie, Davidson, Stanly, Montgomery, Anson…another corridor that is caught in the middle. Make the Dual-Pol a valuable asset to both Greer and Raleigh offices.

    Here’s one question I have…it is required that the NWS Doppler be placed on the same piece of property as the forecasting office? Could NOAA just re-locate the current Greer radar to a more centralized location..if the Dual-Pol idea is not an option, how about moving the radar site to a location further up I-85, (NC/SC line, Gaffney?). Of course doing that would put the Northeast GA counties under Greer’s CWA in a bad spot but I have never really understood why they were in that CWA to begin with?

    • wxbrad

      There are several stand alone Doppler sites in places around the country. Mainly on military bases but I think having a radar just north of Charlotte would makes sense. I agree areas along I-40 have it even worse than CLT as far as radar coverage. I think we need to start another effort get one in the Lake Norman area maybe would be ideal. I think we still need one in Greer though.

      • PJ

        Brad, What can we, the public, do to help along this process? Do we write to legislators? What’s the first step?

  • Brad, I was a member of the Amateur Radio Advanced Skywarn Spotter group when Charlotte had the WS office. Everyone involved knew the decision to move to SC was bad for us and this goes to prove it. Politics will win over logic every time though.

  • Ashley Stamper

    I appreciate your post explaining the process of how the early morning went down, and why maybe the community was not warned. I also appreciate you answering all of my questions yesterday that I had on your FB fanpage. I think it is great how you communicate back and forth with Charlotte and your fans via the internet. You don’t find that in a lot of places. I am also going to cover myself and say how much I love this area, and the people in it after moving here just a month ago from an area that has frequent tornados/severe storms. I live here now, and my opinion should be valued as is everyone else’s.

    No warnings for the tornado producing cell is absolutely unacceptable. I know you have no blame in this, and I commend you for your awesome efforts. Seriously, you seem like a great genuine guy who cares so much about his community. BUT what is it going to take to get some more reliable warning systems in place? A 3.2 mile tracked on the ground EF-2 tornado? Or a number of fatalities? It seems like this not very likely of producing a tornado city, produced a pretty awesome tornado in the middle of the night. In God’s grace, no lives were spared! *I* knew the temperature difference between the cold wedge was not good, and the probability of a tornado was likely. The distance I live from this is about 7 miles or so, closer than I originally thought (I’m still figuring out the area). I had no idea this city did not have sirens in place. Even at one point, at about 1 a.m. I shooshed my husband, because I thought I heard the sirens going off…which makes me laugh now. Who do you bring these sort of concerns to? Coming from a city that has sirens that can be heard miles away….they ARE effective. They are effective if a proper plan is put in place by the county/city. This is 2012, the resources are there….why are they not being exhausted? Why does the community have to rely on a not so reliable system because of boundaries and error?

    My heart aches for the people directly affected. If any of them are like my family with no friends or family in the area, I can only imagine how lost they feel. It is so great to see a community pull together with donations for them! Obviously, nothing can stop a tornado from happening. Something has to be done with the warning system. Someone with authority HAS to step up. The tornadoes that have happened in this country over the last year are insane. They are much stronger, and way more frequent. This could have happened mid morning with children in school, and thankfully it did not. I’m thankful that I am terrified of storms (house was hit when I was 7 by a tornado, and neighbors house when I was 14), because it keeps me on my toes when it comes to the weather. Unlike a lot of people who think it is neat, and they underestimate it. Something needs to be done ASAP.

    Your concerned outspoken new resident 🙂

  • wxbrad

    I want everyone to know that I along with the First Warn Storm team & News Channel 36 are working on a way to alert people 24/7 of severe weather. This will be a very specific way to warn for your exact location via phone/cell phone/text or email. Please stay tuned for details we hope to have this service available very soon.

    • heterodox

      Thank you! This is great to hear. And I truly mean it.

  • Brad, I am in awe of your dedication to not only your viewing area but to all mankind. When you see that things are turning ugly, you reach out to tell us to call, email, tweet etc our loved ones in other areas to warn them of the dangerous conditions forming.

    I live in Cabarrus County and I heard this storm, however I was lucky to be far enough away as to not sustain any damage. It’s nice to know someone has our back.


  • Hi Brad, thank you for this overview of the tornado that happened Saturday morning. The tornado passed about 7.7 miles west of where both myself (in Cabarrus Co.) and my parents live (Meck. Co.). The public definitely needed to be warned about this storm and I truly find it unacceptable that the NWS missed this. I was quite surprised to learn that Charlotte doesn’t have a Doppler radar in the area, except for the TDWR at the airport. I’m thankful no one was injured in this unfortunate situation.

  • It does seem that the NWS Raleigh office saw what was happening even if GSP didn’t. I think the warning for Stanly County was a warning to Raleigh to call attention to the situation, under the assumption that GSP and residents here would look at the storm and notice the rotation – otherwise the Stanly warning makes no sense.

    • wxbrad

      Robert, I have an inside scope on why Raleigh issue that warning but didn’t include it in this post. There was a forecaster on duty up there who has family in this area. He was on the phone with his mom at the time when the line dropped out he then saw the radar signature & issued the warning. We were chatting about this situation on-line at the time as I was passing information along to him.

  • panthergranny

    I’m sure the people who lost all or most of their homes in Mecklenburg/Cabarrus county would have appreciated a tornado warning. As large as Charlotte and the Metro Area is, it is difficult to get my head around the fact there are 3 different offices trying to forecast the weather for this area at 75-80 miles away. Some of our city/county leaders should put this obvious pitfall as a priority on their agenda. We were fortunate there were no lives lost on Saturday.

  • This is terrible. I can’t believe an alert wasn’t issued. I used to work for a utilities company in Charlotte, and NWS alerts are extremely important to track storms and alert crews.

    • heterodox

      NWS alerts are important to everyone, period. I share your sentiment on the lack of an alert in this case. Next time this happens, the child that is ripped from her bedroom may not survive. It’s a scary thought.

  • This is a terrible tragedy for our area, I lived a few blocks from where it touched down but had moved in 2008 from that section of town. My heart goes out to all affected by this tornado my children went to elementary school at Reed creek. I’ll be out in the area to help homeowners rebuild. homeowners can find us at

  • Great Post Brad!

    I wonder why the insurance industry doesn’t have a vested interest in putting more funding into the NWS. Seems with better radar/warnings/notice more life and property could be saved thus saving the insurance industry money. I have no idea how much a new Doppler radar would cost but seems every large city should have one.

  • I totally agree with you and I feel where you’re coming from. I’m fortunate to live in Raleigh, but if I was living in Charlotte I would hate to be in the dark about something like this. I also feel the fact about Charlotte needing a dedicated NWS radar. For a major metro area not having one is mind boggling to me. Hopefully you could start a petition for the GSP office to put a dedicated NWS radar for Western NC. Use early Saturday Morning as an example. The lack of a warning put lives in danger. What would have happened if the tornado went through downtown Charlotte? The headline would be much different.

  • I agr

  • I like your write up and agree with your conclusion that we need a 88D here in the Southern Piedmont to cover this area better. I don’t think we need or will get a WFO for this area.

    I DO think you need to cite in your radar graphic, that the data is from the “FAA TDWR radar system” and NOT the WCNC radar. It is mis-leading people into believing that local TV radar systems are much better than they actually are.

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