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Why North Carolina, far from Tornado Alley, took brunt of big outbreak

North Carolina averages 19 tornadoes a year. More than 60 hit the state over the weekend, part of a 'family' of 243 tornadoes that spun across the South, killing at least 43.

By Staff writer / April 18, 2011

Emergency personnel enters Lowe's Home Improvement after it was hit by a tornado in Sanford, N.C., April 16. Homes and businesses were badly damaged Saturday by a severe storm system that whipped across North Carolina, bringing flash floods, hail and reports of tornadoes from the western hills to the streets of Raleigh.

Jim R. Bounds/AP

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Atlanta

In Sanford, N.C., a heads-up store manager is credited with saving 70 frightened shoppers as a tornado ripped off the roof of a Lowe's hardware outlet. In Raleigh, N.C., a tornado found its favorite victim, tearing apart most of a trailer park.

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In Bertie County, N.C., 11 people died as twisters – progenies of an epic clash of atmospheric fronts – split trees, toppled cars, and blew apart homes, as Gov. Bev Perdue said, as if they were paper doll houses.

A rival to the "Super Tuesday" tornado outbreak in February 2008 that killed 56 people across four Southern states, this weekend's storm spawned 243 tornadoes from Oklahoma to Virginia. At least 45 people died during the tornado outbreak. North Carolina saw the greatest human toll, with 22 confirmed dead, and search and rescue teams still combing a huge impact area for more victims.

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Hundreds more were injuried, many seriously, as a "family" of twisters spun out of a severe disturbance caused by a fast-moving, low-level front being undercut by colder winds coursing through the upper atmosphere.

The severity and type of storm – it's rare for North Carolina to see large, visible Tornado Alley-type twisters – is linked to a strong Pacific-born La Niña system confronting the same north Atlantic "oscillation" that has produced two unusually cold and snow-filled Southern winters in a row. The last such super storm in North Carolina came in the spring of 1984, which spawned 20 twisters and killed 43.

"This was an amazing event," says Anthony Lupo, a tornado expert at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. "You had 120 tornado reports from Maryland down to South Carolina in one day, and they were pretty well focused on North Carolina. This is probably going to top 1984 as their worst event.

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