The tornadoes that slashed through North Carolina a week ago, leaving 24 dead and a lengthy swath of property damage, weren't just horrible. They also were historic.
National Weather Service forecasters said Friday they had confirmed touchdown of at least 28 tornadoes that day -- six more than the previous record of 22 tornadoes spawned from one system in March 1984.
Brandon Locklear, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, said it is difficult to explain why North Carolina has seen more - and more serious - tornadoes in recent years.
"Weather kind of goes through cycles," Locklear said. "We might just now be in more of an active period."
Many factors are at play, he said, as weather systems pass across a state with a mountain range on its western end and an expansive coastal region to the east. Often, storms stall or slow over the mountains, then either peter out or pick up steam after finding pockets of warmth and moisture.
"All the geography plays a role in what happens to weather systems," Locklear said. "Do we understand it all? No. ... The interaction of the land and the ocean is very difficult to understand."
North Carolina's population centers have grown since the previous record tornadoes of decades ago, Locklear said. There could simply be more people reporting tornado sightings and property damage today than in years past.
"It's difficult to compare," Locklear said.
Trash for days
As forecasters and climatologists studied last week's weather system, which spawned three days of severe and deadly storms across the South, Wake County residents continued Friday to clean up twisted trees and other debris left behind.
Mitch Beasley, an operations manager for Phillips & Jordan, a debris management company based in Western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, stood watch over a patch of city land off Patriots Drive in northeast Raleigh, where truckloads of mangled tree trunks, limbs and other yard waste were being dumped.
In his job, Beasley goes from city to city in the aftermath of disaster. He was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina blew through, and he was in New York after Sept. 11. He saw what Hurricane Fran did to this region in 1996.
Rarely, he said, would a company the size of Phillips & Jordan get a call to stage debris-removal operations after a tornado strike.
But, "this is a lot of damage for a tornado," Beasley said.
Carl Dawson, Raleigh's public works director, said the damage in the areas where the twisters struck rivaled what the city saw after Hurricane Fran, though Fran's damage was on a much broader scale.
Houses and yards on one side of a street might be obliterated, while the other side might have no damage, upright flower pots and immaculate yards.
The cost of a cleanup
The city has contracts with several companies to help remove storm debris. Beasley said he has 40 trucks out on the roads collecting trees and other vegetative materials left along road shoulders or public sidewalks.
Over the next six weeks, officials expect trucks to bring in 150,000 cubic yards of debris, mounds of broken and twisted trees and other yard waste that will be chipped and mulched and hauled away by a private contractor. (For perspective, debris removal workers say a typical portable toilet is three cubic yards. So, the expected debris could be contained in 50,000 portable toilets.)
Though Dawson puts early cost estimates for the vegetative debris removal at $1 million, he said the price could go up as damaged curbs, gutters and sidewalks are exposed after haulers pick up the large piles covering them up.
"We don't know what we have yet," Dawson said.