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Diagnosing Sunday's storms

A Parkdale Mills building was damaged by a tornado that struck Belmont, NC, Sunday.

Heavy storms rumbled through the Charlotte region Sunday night. Winds ripped off part of a textile plant's metal roof in Belmont and damaged a mobile home park next door. In northern Rowan County, the facde of a grocery store was blown off. It took another 24 hours for meteorologists to determine that tornadoes did the damage. But that wasn't the case in Mecklenburg County. WFAE's Lisa Miller tagged along with a team investigating the storm: After most big storms the National Weather Service sends out its detectives. Meteorologist Tony Sturey was on the case in Gaston and Mecklenburg Counties yesterday afternoon. He's surveying the damage on Brim Street and Wildwood Drive in west Mecklenburg County. Sturey introduces himself to two neighborhood residents. "Hey guys. I'm Tony with the National Weather Service. We're doing a damage assessment trying to figure out what happened." "I'm Mario Caraballo, the neighbor." "I'm John Brown." "Is everyone okay now?" asks Sturey. "Oh yeah," they reply. The storm's damage is clear enough. Part of a tree landed on Brown's roof and collapsed it. The top of the tree is in the yard next door. Hundreds of branches and a few other trees litter the two blocks. "Did you happen to see anything?" asks Sturey. "All I know I was sitting in here between these two windows. Next thing I knew I heard what I thought was an airplane. I mean, it was loud, the loudest one I ever heard and I looked out the window and everything was going this way. All I did was grab my daughter and made everyone get in this room here." Brown's neighbor Mario Caraballo saw a bit more. "All those trees over there, I was seeing them, they all came down. I swear they hit the street and then they all popped right back up, right," explains Caraballo. "But I didn't see no funnel, nothing like that..." "Just a blow of wind," adds Sturey. "Yeah," replies Caraballo. "It was no blow of wind. No, it wasn't that," says Brown. But that's what it was. Not a tornado, but a type of wind Sturey calls 'straight-line wind.' It's caused by a 'downburst.' He estimates this downburst reached about 75 miles per hour. "Sometimes winds collide way up in the atmosphere, 15,000 feet, and they start descending rapidly down toward the earth's surface quite fast - sometimes 50, 60, 70, 100 miles per hour," explains Sturey. Sturey's investigation started Sunday night at the National Weather Service office in Greer, SC. He took calls from weather service volunteers and studied storm maps before driving up yesterday. He also visited Belmont where the damage was quite different. The metal roof of Parkdale Mills' distribution center was shredded and torn in different directions. Walls collapsed. Sturey concluded a tornado that reached 90 miles per hour caused this damage. Miller: The storm's already gone through. The damage has already been done. Why's it important to know definitively if it's a tornado or not? Sturey: A couple reasons. Number one, the people are very interested in the weather and it has impacted their lives and they want to know what has caused it. But it also allows us to further research in the field of tornadoes, not only at the local level, but also at the national level, the storm prediction center who issues the tornado watches and the severe thunderstorm watches for the lower 48 states. Miller: How'd you get it into this business? Sturey: I grew up in a town called Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I was getting ready to go to college in the summer of 1977 and it started raining one July evening at 6 o'clock and it rained and rained and rained for about 8 hours and that night, 90 people lost their lives in flash-flooding. That kind of galvanized me. I wanted to be able to help people understand some of the stuff. I know you can't prevent it, I know you can't put domes over things, but you can provide some good information that people can make good decisions with to be able to protect themselves from some of the high impact elements.