A rare February tornado with wind speeds over 100 mph tore through five miles of back-country roads here Wednesday, the National Weather Service confirmed after surveying the damage.
The federal survey team categorized the storm as an EF1 tornado, which means wind speeds of 6 to 110 mph, and determined that it first touched down just west of Booth’s Christmas Tree Farm at 5198 Adrian Highway.
The funnel then cut a five-mile swath along the highway damaging homes, destroying trees and downing power lines all the way to the intersection of Gause Road and Savannah Lane.
Horry County Code Enforcement officials found 40 buildings and homes damaged at a cost of nearly $1 million, including several houses now uninhabitable due to roof or foundation damage.
“I think it was definitely a tornado,” said Steven Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service who led the team with Horry County Emergency Management officials.
About a mile away from the tree farm, Pfaff originally estimated the funnel cloud was at its peak speed of about 112 mph as it ripped off a barn roof, snapped trees like twigs, blew out a home’s windows and destroyed a nearby tennis court.
“It just missed this house,” Pfaff said.
The wind speeds later were adjusted, and officials say the maximum wind reached was 110 mph.
The NWS damage team spent Thursday morning after the storm retracing the twists and turns of the tornado, noting where it shredded stands of pine trees into oversized toothpicks, and spun alongside a house causing massive damage.
According to the preliminary findings by the NWS, the tornado touched down near Adrian Highway just east of Sabrina Lane, then moved eastward and nearly parallel to Adrian Highway.
The tornado continued east to Hucks Road, crossed Johnson Shelly Road and stayed just north of New Dawn Lane, causing damage at the intersection of Highway 19.
The tornado continued eastward and crossed New Home Circle, then lifted in a field just west of Gause Road.
It was a “quick and dirty” tornado,” Pfaff said.
Although storm damage also was noted along Highway 1124, Pfaff said that appeared to result from thunderstorm winds.
No injuries were reported as a result of the tornado that touched down just before noon, while most residents were at work.
“It could have been terrible,” Pfaff said after surveying all of the damage, including the property of Jane Cannon, whose house was torn open by the storm exposing the room she fled just moments before the tornado struck.
“I started praying, and God got me through it,” Cannon said, as federal and local officials surveyed the damage, stepping around plastic containers of clothes she had salvaged.
“Because if it had come through the whole house, I probably would have been killed,” Cannon said. “So, I give all the credit to God, that’s all I can do.”
Pfaff said the damage to Cannon’s home was likely compounded by the flying debris off a nearby barn. The winds were raging at well over 100 miles an hour on Cannon’s street corner, which was the rear flank of the tornado.
Neither Cannon nor any residents in the storm’s path had any warning — beyond the thundering wind — that a tornado was bearing down on them.
Pfaff said the NWS did not issue a warning because the tornado formed so quickly and was not well defined on radar.
Forecasters often are able to give residents as much as 12 minutes warning of a tornado approaching.
The information gathered by the federal agency in Conway will be used to help forecasters in the future to more quickly predict these types of tornadoes, Pfaff said.
Tornado season doesn’t begin until March, and when they do strike in South Carolina, it’s typically in the late summer season when tropical storms develop.
February tornadoes are rare, Pfaff said.
“It's not common, but not unheard of,” he said.
Down the street from the Cannon home, Michelle Morgan and her family were trying to pick up the pieces after the tornado lifted their trailer off the foundation and broke nearly everything inside.
Morgan wasn’t surprised to learn that federal officials confirmed the tornado.
“It’s just crazy, and it’s sad,” she said, because they don’t have insurance to fix the damage.
Folks living in mobile homes that were in the tornadoes path were fortunate, Pfaff said. The funnel cloud blew right alongside one mobile home, which didn’t flip because it was securely anchored.
The roof was nearly blown off and the trailer shoved off the foundation from the rear, while the front of the trailer was spattered with mud from the spinning funnel cloud.
“There’s a lot of lucky folks out here,” Pfaff said.
A tornado path also was found near Pireway Road in Brunswick County west of Longwood. NWS officials will survey that storm Friday, Pfaff said.