Event Summary
     National Weather Service,
     Raleigh NC

March 28, 1984 Carolina's Tornado Outbreak
Updated 2009/03/18

The largest and most devastating tornado outbreak to affect North and South Carolina during the last century occurred on March 28, 1984. The outbreak produced 22 tornadoes that killed 57 people, including 42 in North Carolina with 15 in South Carolina, and injured another 800. Roughly a third of the victims were in mobile homes.

Research by Dr. Theodore Fujita indicated the tornadoes that occurred from Newberry and Kershaw South Carolina, east northeast across the Laurinburg/Maxton, North Carolina region, and northeast to just east of Greenville, North Carolina, consisted of a single family of tornadoes that covered a distance of nearly 250 miles. The long paths of damage, combined with the fact that the tornadoes occurred near the center of a large-scale low pressure area, lead several researchers to compare this outbreak to the 1925 tri-state Tornado. Research showed that the Tri-state Tornado had a similar path length and occurred near the center of a large-scale low pressure area. However, the intensity and nearly continuous path of damage associated with the Carolinaís Tornado Outbreak were not nearly as devastating as that of the Tri-state Tornado. Regardless of the comparisons, the Carolinaís Outbreak went down in North Carolina history as the strongest and deadliest since records have been kept.

Synoptic Overview

A surface low over eastern Texas, associated with an upper-level trough over the central U.S. tracked east across the Gulf States during the day on the 28th. As it strengthened over the Southeast, a meso-low developed over northwest Alabama, and tracked along a boundary that extended through central South Carolina into North Carolina. Intense thunderstorms developed along the boundary and moved northeast through eastern North Carolina, spawning numerous deadly tornadoes.

Satellite loop courtesy of Jonathan Finch - click to enlarge

Storm Development

At 00 UTC on the 28th, the evening prior to the tornado outbreak, a longwave upper-level trough was located over the central U.S. A 130kt 200mb jet maximum was oriented from west to east over Mississippi, ahead of the trough axis. At the same time, a surface low was developing over southeast Texas, in the right entrance region of the upper-level jet core. As the upper-level divergence increased (diverging 300 and 500mb height lines), the surface low transitioned to the left exit region of the upper-level jet. As the upper-level wave propagated east, the surface low and low-level warm air advection (WAA) began to strengthen by 12 UTC (WAA seen in the low-level height field). Surface observations showed a 987mb low over western Tennessee, with a warm front draped across the Appalachian Mountains of N.C. A cold front extend southward through Mississippi. A surface trough ahead of the cold front was visible in the surface analysis, and was most likely induced by differential heating, as seen in the 13 UTC visible satellite image. The surface boundary provided low-level convergence that would be extremely important as the severe weather event unfolded.

The 15 UTC SELS Convective Outlook placed nearly all of North Carolina, South Carolina, and part of Georgia in a "moderate risk". With the surface low now located in the left exit region of the upper-level jet, a low-level jet of 60kt at 850mb brought warm, moist air northward (note dewpoints greater than 60F across Georgia and South Carolina at 15 UTC).

By 18 UTC, the 60F dewpoints had surged well into eastern North Carolina. The low pressure center had drifted northeast into southern Kentucky, and the cold front had advanced into Alabama. A meso-low had begun to form along the cold front, and the surface convergence zone now extended through Georgia into South Carolina. At 1814 UTC, the Severe Local Storms Center (SELS) issued Tornado Watch 56 that included almost all of S.C. and central and eastern N.C. At 19 UTC, SELS upgraded much of the Southeast from a "moderate risk" to "high risk". Around 1915 UTC, the first tornado touched down in Marlboro County, S.C., and moved across the state border into N.C. (see above). By 23 UTC, the surface boundary stretched from near Elizabeth City to just east of Raleigh to just east of Charlotte. Twenty-two tornadoes formed in the next three hours as the meso-low tracked northeast along the surface boundary through eastern N.C.

Time line of the Carolina's Tornado Outbreak

    A time sequence of events that occurred is as follows, courtesy of National Weather Service Local Storm Data, and Dr. T. Fujita.
The first tornado to strike North Carolina produced F4 damage as it moved northeast into Scotland County from Marlboro County, SC. around 1915 local standard time (LST). Seven people were killed in Marlboro County, SC.

A second tornado produced F4 damage and formed just to the east of the previous tornado around 1925 LST. Both tornadoes moved in a tandem for several minutes to near Maxton before the first tornado lifted. The second tornado killed one person in Scotland County before moving into northwestern Robeson County. Between 1925 LST and 1945 LST, the second F4 tornado produced a 1500 yard wide path of destruction as it passed northeast through northwest Robeson County, killing one and injuring 280. It passed directly through the communities of Johnís, Maxton, and Red Springs. Every substantial building in Red Springs sustained F1 or F2 damage. This tornado finally lifted as it approached Hope Mills and Fayetteville, in Cumberland County.

The third tornado touched down at approximately 1945 LST about 5 miles northeast of Tobermory, in Bladen County. It then passed through Beaver Dam and entered west-central Sampson County. Two people were killed and a large forest was destroyed in this part of Sampson County. The tornado produced a nearly continuous path of F3 damage from Beaver Dam through Salemburg, Roseboro, and Clinton. One person was killed in Salemburg, two in Roseboro, and six near Clinton. The tornado moved northeast at 60 MPH, before lifting just 2 miles west of Clinton. A total of 101 people were injured with this tornado.

Just a few moments after the Clinton tornado lifted, the fourth major tornado to affect North Carolina touched down at 2015 LST, 5 miles northeast of Clinton. This storm produced a direct hit on Faison, Calypso, and portions of Mount Olive in southeastern Wayne county. The tornado produced F3 damage, killing 3, and injuring 149.

After a brief lull just northeast of Mount Olive in Wayne county, another F3 tornado touched down just southeast of Goldsboro and passed southeast of La Grange in Lenoir county, where 81 were injured around 2030 local time. As this tornado lifted, another even stronger tornado touched down just a few miles to the northeast of La Grange. This tornado was likely the most deadly and devastating of the day, as it ripped across northern Lenoir, central Greene, and into Pitt county between 2045 LST and 2055 LST. Six people lost their lives at Snow Hill in Greene county, two in Ayden, one in Winterville, and six on the east side of Greenville. In addition, the F4 tornado injured 153 and destroyed more than 300 homes as itís path of destruction occasionally reached to more than 1200 yards wide.

Just as the family of tornadoes that devastated the southern and central coastal plain region diminished around 2100 LST, another family of tornadoes began their damage paths across the northern coastal area. The first touchdown was in Bertie county, just west of Lewiston at 2055 LST. The F3 tornado tore through a mobile home park there, killing 6, 5 in one family. Nineteen others were injured.

The tornadoes continued to touch down in sequence across Bertie, Hertford, and Gates county between 2110 LST and 2130 LST. Two people were killed, and 17 injured as tornadoes passed just southeast of Ahoskie and over the Chowan River into Gates county. The final tornado moved ashore from the Albemarle Sound, crossed the southern part of Chowan county and moved into Perquimans county near Elizabeth City around 2215 local time. The last of the fatalities occurred in Perquimans county as a tree crushed a mobile home.

Meteorological Impacts

The synoptic scale setting that is most favorable for tornado outbreaks in the Carolinas has proven to be fairly predictable. An idealized schematic of the synoptic features that most often lead to tornado outbreaks has four main features:

  • The surface cyclone and associated frontal zones
  • The polar jet
  • The subtropical jet
  • The low-level jet
  • The March 28, 1984 tornado outbreak over eastern N.C. was precluded by an environment very similar to the aforementioned idealized setting. As the polar jet (PJ) right entrance region and the subtropical jet (STJ) exit region phased together over the Gulf States, the surface low strengthened under the enhanced divergence. The low-level branch of the STJ exit region ageostrophic circulation transported warm moist air from off the Gulf of Mexico northward ahead of the storm system. This helped to destabalize the warm sector air mass. Areas that were cloud free were able to destablize more easily, relative to clouded regions. This proved to be vital in forming a surface boundary that corresponded well with the main axis of moisture. With conditions favorable for severe thunderstorms to develop, the surface convergence zone provided an area of enhanced vorticity, allowing storms in the vicinity to rotate and produce tornadoes.

    Idealized Tornado Outbreak Conditions

    Idealized Tornado Outbreak Conditions - Click to enlarge

    March 28th, 1984 Conditions

    March 28th, 1984 Conditons - Click to enlarge

    March 28th, 1984 Conditons - Click to enlarge


    Official National Weather Service Storm Data, March 1984.

    U.S. Significant Tornadoes, Thomas Grazulus, 1860-1991.

    U.S. Tornadoes, Dr. T. T. Fujita, 1987.

    Historical Tornado Cases for North America, Jonathan D. Finch

    Case Study Team

    Phillip Badgett
    Barrett Smith
    Jonathan Blaes
    Rod Gonski
    Kermit Keeter

    For questions regarding the web site, please contact Jonathan Blaes.