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Severe thunderstorms move into Charlotte area

By Steve Lyttle and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
slyttle@charlotteobserver.com cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

A line of powerful thunderstorms responsible for widespread damage moved into the Charlotte area during rush hour Thursday, downing trees and power lines and making the afternoon commute a soggy mess.

Severe thunderstorm warnings are in effect for parts of Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Iredell and Gaston counties. The storms are expected to sweep through the Charlotte area in the next two hours.

Just before 5 p.m., Duke Energy reported nearly 150,000 power outages across the Carolinas, including roughly 10,000 in Mecklenburg, and nearly 50,000 in Forsyth County.

Carrie Stroud, a spokeswoman for Union Power, says the cooperative has more than 13,500 outages spread across eastern Mecklenburg, Union and Stanly counties.

The storms blew down trees and caused large hail within the past hour in northern Gaston County, along with damage reports from Lincoln, Rowan, northern Iredell and Alexander counties.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police were reporting nearly 30 roads blocked, mostly by limbs and other storm debris.

Tree and power line damage was reported about 4:30 p.m. from Bessemer City in Gaston County.

There are several reports of trees blown onto houses north of Charlotte.

Severe thunderstorm watches are in effect Thursday afternoon and evening for the entire state of North Carolina and for parts of South Carolina.

Meteorologists at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., are calling today’s threat particularly significant, saying widespread wind and hail damage is possible across parts of Virginia and the Carolinas.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., the same storms now nearing Charlotte produced wind gusts of 65 mph near Johnson City, Tenn. About the same time, a funnel cloud was spotted during a storm in Fredericksburg, Va. A tornado warning was in effect for several counties near Knoxville, Tenn.

As of mid-afternoon Thursday, there were more than 135 reports of severe weather across the eastern United States since daybreak.

The storms are triggered by the same weather system plowed across Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New York on Thursday morning, blowing down trees and knocking out power to tens of thousands of residents. Meteorologists say the unstable atmosphere at the edge of the huge thunderstorm complex that hit the mid-Atlantic this morning will push southward, encounter the hot and humid air over Virginia and the Carolinas, and form new storms.

“Blazing sunshine is heating the atmosphere to volatile levels in southern Virginia and North Carolina,” said Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist with Pennsylvania-based Accu-Weather.

Meteorologists say the storms could be capable of producing wind gusts of 60 to 80 mph.

“Winds of this magnitude can knock down trees and cause power outages and significant property damage,” Sosnowski said.

Before the storms reached the Charlotte region, temperatures rose to their highest levels so far this year.

The temperature at Charlotte Douglas International Airport reached 91 degrees at 2 p.m. -- our first 90-degree day of the year. That came after a morning when temperatures dropped only into the lower 70s.

But Charlotte’s temperature paled in comparison to the 102-degree reading at Bennettsville, S.C., about 90 miles southeast of Charlotte in the sandhills. It also hit 100 degrees at Lumberton, in Robeson County just north of Bennettsville. At the same time, it was 95 degrees in Jefferson, S.C., just south of Pageland.

There also were readings of 93 degrees in Concord and Lancaster, S.C.; and 92 degrees at Monroe and Rock Hill.

“We could see several swaths of wind damage today,” said Bryan McAvoy, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C.

But the storms will move along quickly, forecasters say.

“It will storm for an hour or two and then dry out for the early evening,” McAvoy said.

Much nicer weather is forecast to arrive Friday and last through the weekend. High temperatures are expected to be in the lower 80s Friday, warming to the mid 80s for Saturday and Sunday. Mostly sunny skies are forecast.

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