While the National Weather Service is often on top of their game when it comes to severe weather, sometimes they miss the mark and make a major error. In this case, they failed to issue a tornado warning on a confirmed tornado until 18 minutes after it first showed up on radar.
Tornadoes often form in the outer bands of tropical cyclones, but they are usually small, weak, and fast. Some of the tornadoes happen so quickly that they form in between radar sweeps, making them completely undetectable until we hear reports of damage. In southeastern North Carolina this afternoon, this was definitely not the case.
Almost every weather nerd with an internet connection is watching the weather radar right now as Hurricane Arthur churns closer to land, and all attention was on a tornado warning north of Wilmington. There were two areas of rotation that prompted the warning, but they weren't particularly strong. At 4:03PM, a small but strong area of rotation well south of the tornado warning caused more concern.
Since the radar is on SAILS mode — giving us low-level sweeps every two or three minutes — I kept an eye on each update to see if the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina would issue a tornado warning.
Next radar sweep, nothing.
The next one, still nothing, and the rotation was even stronger:
By 4:11PM Eastern, the tornado had developed very strong rotation and there was even some debris showing up on radar.
Even after this feature showed up on radar, it took a full ten minutes for the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning for a law enforcement-confirmed tornado, long after the tornado had lifted and the damage was done.
The rotation first showed up at 4:03 PM and the warning wasn't issued until 4:21 PM — that's a full 18 minutes that a confirmed tornado (!) was present on radar imagery, and there was no warning.
This is unacceptable.
The NWS office in Wilmington is understandably swamped with work due to Hurricane Arthur and its effects, but this was not a surprise tornado. It was there and it was obvious and there is no reason or excuse good enough to justify not issuing a tornado warning on this storm.
A tornado watch is in effect for eastern North Carolina. When a tornado watch is in effect, it means that conditions are favorable for the formation of tornadoes. Sometimes tornadoes occur without warning, but they are often too small or happen too quickly to be detected by Doppler radar. That was not the case today. The lack of a tornado warning for Currie, North Carolina was pure human error, and it is an error that cannot and should not ever happen again.
[Images via GOES and Gibson Ridge]