WILMINGTON, N.C. – It was late Monday night when the power went out at Jesse Clemmons' home in coastal North Carolina. He went outside to start up the generator and heard a loud roar approaching from the woods.
“By that time, I pretty much knew what was going on,” Clemmons said.
He ran back inside, grabbed his son, told his wife to get their daughter, and the four huddled inside a closet as a monster EF3 tornado barreled their way.
The twister killed three people and injured 10 others as it struck neighborhoods just inland from the barrier island of Ocean Isle Beach shortly before midnight Monday, ripping homes apart and flipping over cars, authorities said. It was spawned along the edge of the same weather system that brought bitterly cold temperatures to much of the nation.
Clemmons was among several residents who said they had little or no advance notice of the severe weather. It wasn't until about two minutes after the storm passed that a tornado warning popped up on his cellphone, he said.
“We’ve been talking with our partners at the National Weather Service, and they were very surprised how rapidly this storm intensified,” said Ed Conrow, Brunswick County’s emergency services director. “It’s something they normally don’t see. So we didn’t have much warning. And at the time of night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation.”
The National Weather Service tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the tornado was a ferocious EF3, with winds estimated at 160 mph (257 kph).
The twister tore through the Ocean Ridge Plantation, a complex of expensive residences clustered around a golf course, collapsing some homes and damaging dozens of others. It also damaged homes in more modest neighborhoods on a highway that unspools along several North Carolina beaches.
“The sky lit up and there was a lot of pop-pop-popping," said Ocean Ridge resident Sharon Benson. "And the loud thunder. And then it sounded like a train, a freight train coming through. ... That’s when all the damage occurred.” Benson said her roof was damaged, several windows were shattered and her garage door was blown off.
Steve McCreedy, 69, said he and his wife were awakened by their dog and dove into a closet of their Ocean Ridge home as they heard their windows shattering and trees snapping outside.
“I heard my dog was kind of whimpering and I got up and went in to see her. And all of a sudden I just started hearing the rumbling, like they say, the train getting louder and louder,” McCreedy said.
He said the weather radio he keeps on hand never mentioned the possibility of a tornado until the storm was already on top of them.
One of Clemmons' neighbors, 54-year-old electrician Tim Long, said the rear of his house fell away as he and his wife took shelter in a bathroom.
“The thunderstorm wakes you up, and the next thing you know, you’re in a tornado,” Long said.
Along a nearby highway, the Ocean Sun Storage facility was nearly completely demolished, while a local extermination company had its glass front door severely cracked. Some structures completely collapsed.
Mark Willis, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s office in nearby Wilmington, said the tornado was spawned when warm air collided with a cold front that has brought ice, snow and subzero temperatures to much of the nation.
___ Drew reported from Durham, North Carolina.