Event Summary
     National Weather Service, Raleigh NC

Raleigh Tornado, November 28, 1988
Updated 11/26/2011

Event Headlines

...The Raleigh tornado touched down just after 100 AM on November 28, 1988...
...The tornado killed 4 people, including two children in Raleigh, and injured over 157 people...
...The tornado was one of the strongest on record in North Carolina, rated F4 on the Fujita Scale...
...The interaction between the subtropical jet stream and the polar jet stream resulted in enhanced
  vertical motion that intensified the convection...

Raleigh Tornado Track - Broad View

Event Summary

North Carolina has far fewer tornadoes than most Midwestern states, but the state still experiences an average of 12 to 15 tornadoes a year. On November 28, 1988, a single deadly tornado touched down in Raleigh just after midnight. This Tornado would remain on the ground for 84 miles and eventually reach Northampton County, northeast of Roanoke Rapids. The trail of destruction impacted thousands of lives across six North Carolina counties.

The tornado killed 4 people, including two children in Raleigh, and injured over 157 people. The storm destroyed 425 residences and 78 businesses. Over 2000 homes sustained some damage resulting in nearly 1000 residents becoming homeless. Damage totals ranged around 77 million dollars in 1988 figures.

Event Overview

The tornado first touched down in western Wake county, in Umstead State Park, about 2 miles east of Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) at 100 AM on November 28, 1988. The tornado reached a maximum intensity of F4 on the Fujita scale in northwestern and northern sections of Raleigh shortly after 100 AM. The tornado remained on the ground for 84 miles as it raced northeast at 50 mph through northeastern Wake, southern Franklin, northwestern Nash, central Halifax, Northampton, and northern Hertford counties. This path took the storm north of the communities New Hope and Justice, between Castalia and Aventon, just south of the town of Halifax, and finally lifted 2 miles northwest of Jackson. The tornado generally produced damage on the F0 to F1 scale, but occasionally produced F2 and F3 damage.

The most intense damage occurred over northwestern Raleigh where the tornado traveled through densely populated areas near major intersections. F4 damage was observed across portions of the tornado path in western and northern Raleigh. Many large businesses were damaged or destroyed including a K-Mart. There were two reported fatalities and 105 injuries across Raleigh as the tornado tracked across several subdivisions.

Two additional fatalities occurred in northwestern Nash county between Castalia and Avondale when a couple residing in a mobile home were killed. The tornado was responsible for destroying 425 residences and 78 businesses while claiming 4 lives. Over 2000 residences sustained damage, which left nearly 1000 people homeless. 1988 figures place the total damages associated with this tornado at over 77 million dollars.

The tornado had its origin in a cluster of thunderstorms that developed over south central North Carolina just before midnight on November 27. This cluster of thunderstorms rapidly intensified as it moved into Wake county from the southwest between 1245 AM and 100 AM on November 28, 1988. Upon entering Wake county, the thunderstorms increased in severity and became a tornado producer shortly after 100 AM, and continued to produce a long lived tornado for a total of 84 miles and almost 2 hours as it traveled from Raleigh to near the Virginia border.

Meteorological Details

At the surface, a pressure trough was located east of the Appalachian Mountains from Maryland southward to northeast Georgia. A warm front had drifted westward from the coastal plain to near the trough axis over the Piedmont. The warm front separated air with temperatures and dew points in the 50s to the northwest from air with temperatures in the 70s and dew points in the 60s to the southeast. The warm sector air temperatures were well above normal for late November. In surface pressure microbarograph data, there was evidence of gravity waves propagating from southwest to northeast in the cooler air mass northwest of the front.

1000mb Synoptic Overview

At upper levels, a progressive, large amplitude trough (at 500 MB) extended southward from the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi Gulf Coast area, A large amplitude ridge was located over the western Atlantic with a ridge axis extending from near Bermuda to the Canadian Maritimes.

500mb Synoptic Overview

At the jet stream level, (300-200 MB), a subtropical jet stream (STJ) axis was located from the northwest Gulf of Mexico northeastward across the Mississippi Gulf Coast area to the Savannah River basin. STJ winds exceeded 110 knots. Within the STJ, small scale perturbations noted on water vapor satellite imagery indicated jet streak accelerations propagating from near Mobile, Al at 600 PM EST that evening to near Raleigh, NC at 100 AM EST that night. A polar jet stream (PJ) axis with winds exceeding 140 knots was centered over the lower Ohio Valley.

200mb Synoptic Overview

From the alignment of the STJ and PJ, it is likely that the left exit region of the STJ juxtaposed over the right entrance region of the PJ in vicinity of the southern Appalachians. This alignment contributed to enhanced upward vertical motion over the region. At 850 MB, a 50-plus knot low level jet from the south was located across the North Carolina Piedmont.

850mb Synoptic Overview

Wind data showed significant shear with winds accelerating sharply to 55 knots and veering with height in the lowest 2 km (surface to 800 MB). The air mass over the Piedmont was deeply saturated from near the surface to around 5 km altitude (600 MB). Above 1 km (900 MB), the air was moderately unstable, with a temperature lapse slightly more unstable than moist adiabatic. It was estimated that positive buoyant energy in the air mass over Raleigh that evening was near 1200 J/kg.

Maps of the Tornado Track

Map of the Tornado Track - Broad View

The map below contains the 84 mile long track of the tornado on November 28, 1988. The tornado moved across five North Carolina counties.

Raleigh Tornado Track- Broad View

Map of the Tornado Track - Detailed View Over Raleigh

The map below contains a zoomed view of the tornado that moved across the city of Raleigh on November 28, 1988. The fatalities, the majority of damage, and most of the injuries that occurred in Raleigh occurred between the red lines of the arrow shown below. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Zoom View of Raleigh Tornado Track with a detailed view over the City of Raleigh - Click to enlarge
(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Case Study Team

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Phil Badgett
Jonathan Blaes
Brandon Vincent

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