Intense wet microburst tears apart North Carolina school gym, injuring 3, U.S.

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Severe storms spawned an intense wet microburst in North Carolina's Sampson County on Monday afternoon, January 13, 2020, which ripped off a school gym and injured three students. Powerful winds up to 137 km/h (85 mph) left a gaping hole in the roof and wall as students ran for their lives, captured in a dramatic video.

The footage showed 21 students playing in the gym at Union intermediate School in Sampson County when the stage crumpled behind them. The roof and walls collapsed as violent winds sucked beams, pipes, and glass into the building.

"We were playing basketball, and it just sounded like something exploded in there," said fifth-grade student Chloe Brewer, who was one of the injured students. All three were sent to the hospital and has been released.

"I just turned around and was looking at the stage, and it just collapsed," she said. "And then we started running, and something hit me from behind, and I fell down. And then the glass started breaking."

"It was just 'bam'. We had no warning," said principal Dondi Hobbs. "Nobody received any alerts on the phones or anything before we were in action mode."

Hobbs added that if the storms had hit Tuesday afternoon, more would have been hurt as there was supposed to be an assembly with up to 450 students.

Sampson County officials said that due to damage, the school was closed Tuesday and Wednesday, January 14 and 15, as cleanup was also underway.

"There's a lot of debris and glass in that class, in that gym," said Sampson County spokeswoman Wendy Cabral.

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service's (NWS) damage survey team confirmed that the event was indeed caused by a microburst.

"Damage in the form of snapped and uprooted trees to the west of the school structure, along with the more significant roof uplift and partial outer wall collapse of the school's gymnasium occurred in a clear, fan-like fashion," NWS said in a statement.

A microburst is a column of sinking air within a thunderstorm smaller than 4 km (2.5 miles) wide. Although the impact can be similar to a tornado, the damage appears a bit different. Tornadoes leave behind a circular wave of debris, while microbursts leave straight-line damage from the point of impact.

Short bursts of this severe weather event usually last five to 10 minutes, arising from downdrafts of sinking air in a thunderstorm. Once the column of wind hits the ground, it can spread straight-line winds over 160 km/h (100 mph).

Wet microbursts, such as this one, are less common than dry microbursts and are commonly driven by dropping cool air and heavy precipitation, which pulls the winds down rapidly.

According to meteorologist William Gallus, "Cool air is heavier than warm air, so this blob of cold air can plunge toward the ground, and it spreads out rapidly when it hits the ground, kind of like how water explodes sideways when a water balloon is dropped and hits the ground."

Featured image credit: CBS 17 (stillshot)

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