“These are events that had a significant impact on the county,” said Nick Cadieu, secretary of the Richmond County Historical Society. “Everyone has memories or stories of how these events impacted their lives.”
WAYN’s Jimmy Smith will moderate the 7 p.m. event at Rockingham City Hall. Smith -- an avid history buff -- understands the significance the two events had on Richmond County.
“These were easily the worst two weather events in the history of Richmond County,” Smith said. “They greatly shaped how we handle such events in today’s world. History is very important. It gives us a knowledge of who we are and what people did before us.”
Richmond County’s 1884 storm is considered one of the worst tornados in North Carolina history. It was part of what has come to be known historically as the Enigma tornado outbreak. It ranks among the largest and most widespread tornado outbreaks in American history.
More than 60 storms erupted in the southeastern United States between Feb. 19 and 20, effecting 10 states including North Carolina. It is estimated that some 1,200 casualties occurred during the 15-hour event. Total property damage was estimated at more than $10 million in 1884 dollars.
The tornado touched down in what is known as the Philadelphia Church community of Rockingham at 8 p.m. on Feb. 19. The estimated F4 tornado leveled much of the property in the area and claimed at least 24 lives. Some local accounts have the death toll as high as 45 casualties. Eyewitness accounts from the time period suggest that intense lightning and massive hail preceded the storm. Winds of between 206 and 260 mph uprooted large trees and left many without bark.
“This was one of the worst storms in North Carolina history,” said Russell Henes, hydrometeorlogical technician with the National Weather Service in Raleigh. “An F4 tornado in this state is indeed a rare occurrence. There have been only two others instances of a tornado of this magnitude. Those were the Red Springs outbreak of 1984 and the Raleigh 1988 tornado.”
The 1969 ice storm looms larger in current memories. Occurring on Feb. 16-17, the big freeze effected more than 80 percent of the county, leaving residents without electricity for days. An estimated 2,000 electric poles knocked out of service, but no casualties were reported.
“This was a perfect storm,” Smith said. “I believe that Richmond county was the only one affected by this freeze. The weather conditions lined up just right. The roads were frozen and the forest looked as if were made of glass. My family had to travel two miles to my brother’s house where they had gas lamps. It took two hours to make the trip. You could here tree limbs breaking in the background. It sounded like gunshots. It was very scary.”
Smith — like many other area residents — has vivid memories of what people had to do to survive such harsh conditions.
He specifically recalled the power outages that crippled the lifestyles of many local residents and businesses. His radio station, WAYN, benefited from being on the same power grid as the hospital and regained power before many residents did.
“We were very lucky,” Smith recalled.
Others were not so fortunate. Electrical outages created many hardships -- issues that were compounded by Carolina Power and Light’s decision to restore power to the industrial sector of the county before addressing residential needs, Smith said. The ill-fated decision led to the resignation of then-company president John Jones.
“People were outraged,” Smith recalled. “That decision caused a lot of unnecessary hardship in a critical situation. History has its lessons to teach.”
The March 15 program will begin at 7 p.m. and will include a public forum where attendees can discuss memories or share stories related to the two weather events.
Staff Writer Daniel Starling can be reached at (910) 997-3111 ext. 19, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.