People stand among downed trees at an apartment complex damaged by a tornado Thursday in Spartanburg, S.C. (Sean Rayford/AP)

A powerful storm system is moving into the Northeast after unleashing tornadoes and flooding in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. February records for low pressure levels are in jeopardy as the developing bomb cyclone moves into New England, bringing heavy snow inland and drenching rains near the Atlantic coast. The lower the pressure the stronger the storm.

The storm will eventually cross into Canada, slamming into Newfoundland, and then trek across the Atlantic to Britain, as the tireless system’s rampage continues through the weekend.

A surprise batch of tornado warnings lit up weather maps across the Mid-Atlantic on Friday morning, one or more likely tornadoes touching down northwest of Washington shortly after sunrise. Another tornado warning was issued for a potential twister in Wilmington, Del., where damage was reported. It is still unclear whether the damage was caused by a tornado.

The tornadic activity in the Mid-Atlantic comes after several severe weather days in the Deep South and Southeast. Nearly 20 tornadoes touched down over Mississippi and Alabama on Wednesday, with a tornado rated EF1 (out of 5) killing a person south of Demopolis, Ala. Those twisters were followed by at least a half dozen Thursday in the Carolinas. Before that, the storm had brought the first snowfall in years to parts of Texas.

One of the tornadoes struck downtown Spartanburg, S.C., tossing debris and causing a blue blotch to appear on radar. Other twisters hit Charlotte, the North Carolina city of nearly 1 million.

Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at Charlotte’s NBC affiliate, was on the air covering tornado warnings when one twister struck his neighborhood, “trashing” his backyard.

“We can’t drive anywhere right now on the main road so we’ve been riding our bikes,” Panovich said Friday morning. “Two years ago we moved to a new house within our neighborhood. Both our old house was hit and our new one. The structure of our home is fine, but we lost every tree in our backyard."

Panovich, who ordinarily works the evening shift, hustled into work shortly after 8 a.m. when activity began to ramp up.

“When I saw that second line going out, I saw immediately where it was going. And for the second time on my career, I said on air to my wife, ‘Hey, if you’re watching this, time to [seek shelter.]’ She got the helmet and everything ready and jumped into the closet.”

Panovich said that his neighbors, upon hearing that personal call to action, took the storm more seriously. “I’m forecasting in the same place I’m living in,” he said. “People tend to trust you a little more.”

Thursday’s storms in the Carolinas also exposed an enormous and long-standing problem that’s been plaguing the Piedmont region: Charlotte doesn’t have its own weather radar. Embroiled in years of failed government bureaucracy, attempts to erect a high-power radar for the high-risk city have routinely fizzled. No dual-polarization radar scans less than 7,000 feet above the ground; the rotational signatures associated with tornadoes are usually strongest within 2,000 feet of the surface. Anchorage has better radar coverage.


A tornado lofts debris in this radar blot near Spartanburg, S.C., on Feb. 6. (GR2 Analyst/Matthew Cappucci)

“It’s difficult,” said Panovich, who has been forced to rely on the airport’s low-power radar for limited glimpses into severe storms. “Whenever something gets east of Charlotte, good luck trying to see it. It’s no man’s land out there.”

The same system brought serious flooding to parts of the Southeast. Charlotte wound up with 3.16 inches on Thursday alone, while a rare flash flood emergency was hoisted for Greensboro, N.C. The National Weather Service also issued a similar alert in Tazewell County, Va., where the Clinch River was expected to crest at its greatest height in more than 40 years. More than 30 flash flood warnings were also issued.

The storm now is rapidly intensifying as it moves into the Northeast, its rate of strengthening anticipated to reach that of a “bomb cyclone.” As the storm evacuates more air at the upper levels, air pressures at the surface could bottom out near record levels. According to NBC Connecticut chief meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan, Hartford could rival its lowest February air pressure ever recorded and possibly snag a spot on its top-10 lowest pressures year-round.

Winter storm warnings and advisories litter the map in the Northeast: 10 to 20 inches of snow are possible in the northern mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, while parts of Upstate New York and western Maine are in the midst of a 6- to 10-inch snowfall.


Snow in the Northeast through Saturday as forecast by the National Weather Service. (Weatherbell)

The system will then pull into the Canadian Maritimes late Friday and very early Saturday, bringing snow, icing and strong winds.

By Sunday, the storm — named by Britain’s Meteorological Office as “Storm Ciara” — will affect Britain and Scotland, with up to 3 inches of rainfall and wind gusts along northwest coastlines up to 80 mph. The unusually heavy rainfall is thanks to an “atmospheric river” that is developing, carrying deep tropical moisture and humidity all the way to Europe.


Atmospheric moisture content as simulated by the European model depicts an atmospheric river heading to Europe this weekend. (Weatherbell)

The same relentless storm system accompanies a ferocious upper-level jet stream, which could help trans-Atlantic flights cross the ocean at ground speeds near 800 mph.