While meteorologists said it wasn’t particularly uncommon for this area, the witnesses to the waterspout that formed off Wrightsville Beach on Sunday afternoon described the weather event as both awe inspiring and nerve wracking.
The funnel cloud formed over the water on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. about 200 yards off the beach near the Shell Island Resort on the island’s north end, witnesses said. The cloud moved south down Wrightsville Beach for a few minutes before suddenly breaking up. And while this tornado-like weather event provided an enthralling show for witnesses, it caused no injuries or damage, though lifeguards watching it from ashore were worried what it could do with debris on the beach.
A waterspout can form in two distinct categories, an official with the National Weather Service Wilmington said, but the one that spun together on Sunday had characteristics of both types.
The waterspout that formed by Wrightsville Beach on Sunday mostly had characteristics of what is known as a “fair weather waterspout,” but NWS meteorologist Mark Willis said that some signature of the funnel cloud did show up on local weather radar, which is usually a sign of a larger, more severe tornado-like waterspout.
The fair weather waterspout always forms over water, Willis said, and usually aren’t associated with a thunderstorm. However, the waterspout that formed over Wrightsville Beach occurred just after a heavy rainstorm on the beach. But the more-severe type of waterspout usually forms over land, stretching thousands of feet into the air, and moves out over water, he said.
One of the witnesses was Dani Tridico, a member of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue, who was stationed at lifeguard stand No.1 at Shell Island Resort.
“After the rain, we saw little dust devils form in the sand dunes,” she said. “About 15 minutes later, the winds were drawn out to see and began forming into a funnel cloud.”
She said the waterspout formed about 200 yards out into Mason Inlet, starting a slow path moving in diagonals towards the Shell Island Resort.
Mike Deal, a regular visitor to Wrightsville Beach, watched the funnel cloud form from his third-floor window at Shell Island Resort. Deal, a plumber who lives in Burgaw, was visiting Wrightsville Beach with his wife, Sherry, who has worked as a respiratory nurse for 37 years.
“We could see the water and as were watching the clouds form out over the ocean, the sky got darker and darker,” said Deal, noting that for about five minutes, the clouds looked like they would form a funnel cloud, but never did. “When it went away, another started to form. It was amazing.”
That cloud formation started with swirling in the water, Deal said, before forming a funnel cloud. That description was consistent with the “fair weather waterspout” described by Willis, which he said begins at the water level before forming into a funnel cloud.
Coming just after a rainstorm, there were few people on the beach, but Tridico said lifeguards were concerned about what the waterspout could do if it came to shore and threw around the umbrellas that were still on the beach.
An official with the WBOR first reported the funnel cloud, relaying the information to the then the NWS, which issued an official warning about the waterspout.
The official told the lifeguards that if they don’t feel safe, they could leave the stand.
“When it was about 50 yards from hitting land, I started wondering whether we should get down now,” Tridico said.
However, while the funnel cloud took a few minutes to form, witnesses said it disappeared rapidly.
“It looked like it just dissolved, it was kind of crazy,” Tridico said. “It lost all momentum and just fell apart.”