Suddenly ambushed by heavy rains and furious winds, several Harley-Davidson joyriders took refuge at a nearby picnic shelter in Tanglewood Park.
The shelter — an enclosure measuring about 350 square feet — did its job for a short while. But as the elements worsened, it eventually collapsed around the stranded bikers and left them exposed to what would become the first of three tornadoes that ripped through Forsyth County on May 5, 1989.
In its coverage of the tornado outbreak, The Clemmons Courier wrote that many locals reported hearing a loud “swooshing noise, like a freight train” just before the violent windstorms hit their respective areas.
One can only imagine what those Harley riders heard.
The motorcyclists weren’t injured, but other county residents within the paths of the tornadoes were less fortunate.
“I have a good friend who was at Mayberry when [the tornado] came through Winston, and I remember him talking about having to get behind the counter when it came through,” says Chris Davis, a volunteer with the Clemmons Fire Department at the time. “There were signs falling.”
All told, 30 to 35 people were injured in the outbreak.
The trio of tornadoes caused about $25 million in damage across the county and left some roads, replete with uprooted trees and downed power lines, looking as though wars had been fought on them.
The first tornado damaged homes and destroyed a gas station in Clemmons. A second tornado criss-crossed Interstate 40 at multiple locations, striking historic Old Salem and the colonial-era Ardmore neighborhood in Winston-Salem as it narrowly missed downtown proper.
Strong winds from that second tornado toppled a radio tower in High Point. A third tornado spawned out of the second, wreaking havoc at Smith-Reynolds Airport by damaging 30 aircraft and multiple hangars.
These scenes of destruction have stuck with Davis. In addition to the plight of the Tanglewood bikers and his friend at Mayberry, he recalls Ardmore getting “hit pretty hard” and the countless trees that were strewn about in Clemmons.
For him, the mess on the ground made for an unforgettably noisy spring.
“I remember running a chainsaw for two months after that,” he says.
Still, Forsyth County got lucky compared to its neighbors. Toluca, a small town that’s part of Lincoln and Cleveland counties, was completely devastated when a multi-vortex tornado spanning half a mile wide killed four people and injured close to 50.
The hellish storm flattened well-constructed houses, reduced mobile homes to rubble, and tossed vehicles hundreds of yards, producing $20 million in damage in the area. It remains the worst tornado event to affect western North Carolina since 1950.
Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia were also impacted. The outbreak consisted of 16 tornadoes in total and lasted for seven hours. Across the four states, the total carnage amounted to $169 million in damage, seven deaths, and about 170 injuries.
Tornado outbreaks have since impacted Forsyth County, but the May 5, 1989 outbreak remains the most destructive tornado event the county has seen during the past three decades.
Compounding matters on that day was the limited weather forecasting technology of the time. Twenty-five years ago, only about half of all tornadoes were preceded by warnings, with lead times of successful warnings usually being less than five minutes.
Though Forsyth County had been under a tornado watch on May 5, 1989, the outbreak happened so quickly that an official warning for the county wasn’t issued. By the time the first tornado hit, it was too late to even set off the tornado sirens; these sirens no longer exist today.
Thankfully, advances in technology — namely, increased coverage and the introduction of Doppler radar technology — have made it virtually impossible for a similar outbreak to occur without a public warning. Today, most warnings are issued with lead times of 12–14 minutes.
The invention of cell phone technology and social media has also greatly increased access to vital emergency information and the speed that information can travel.
August Vernon, the director of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Office of Emergency Management, is responsible for leading coordination and planning for all natural and manmade disasters in Forsyth County. He notes that, because of the region’s terrain, tornadoes that impacted the county typically come from the southwest and traveled northeast to Forsyth.
“[Tornadoes] usually come from that direction — Advance, Davie County — so when we start seeing tornado warnings pop up in Rowan, Iredell, and Davie counties, we start watching because that’s usually the way they seem to come up toward us,” he says.
Vernon credits modern technology for its role in streamlining emergency management, but he emphasizes the individual’s role in his own safety.
“It’s not all about technology — it’s about people making the right choices and decisions about knowing what to do,” he says. “Public education is still an area that needs to improve, and that’s something we’re constantly working on.”
He also recommends that every household be in possession of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, which provides a continuous broadcast of the latest local weather information from the National Weather Service.
Four months from the outbreak, Hurricane Hugo impacted North Carolina and caused $1 billion in damage. The hurricane was the second half of what Vernon calls a “double whammy” for the state in 1989.
We’ve had a few whammies in the 30 years since, but now we stand a better chance of thwarting them.