National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce
graphic of the tornado's path across Brunswick County, NC

A powerful tornado developed across southwestern Brunswick County, NC late in the evening of February 15, 2021, causing severe damage to homes in the Ocean Ridge Plantation neighborhood on US Highway 17.

A detailed NWS storm survey along the tornado's 22 mile long path cataloged damage consistent with wind speeds of up to 160 mph (EF3) and a damage swath up to 275 yards wide.  Brunswick County Emergency Management reports there were three fatalities and ten injuries directly associated with this tornado, concentrated in the Ocean Ridge Plantation area.

This was the deadliest tornado to affect southeastern North Carolina since the Riegelwood tornado in Columbus County on November 16, 2006.  This was the strongest tornado to occur in Brunswick County since records began in 1950, and is the only tornado on record to cause fatalities within Brunswick County.


Link to our storm report text

Link to the storm survey in Google Earth (kmz) with damage photos



Radar animation of the deadly tornado on February 15, 2021. The left panel is reflectivity; the right panel is storm-relative velocity.


The tornado first touched down near near the intersection of Old Georgetown Road SW and Angel Trace Road in the Sea Trail Golf Resort near Sunset Beach, damaging a number of trees.  Wind speeds here were estimated to have reached 80 mph.  The tornado strengthened as it moved northeastward and crossed a swampy area north of NC Highway 179 (Old Georgetown Rd).  When the tornado reached NC Highway 904 (Seaside Rd) it damaged a church, a large metal building, and overturned a number of RVs.  Wind speeds here estimated to have reached 115 mph.

Continuing northeastward, the tornado crossed Saw Pit Swamp and entered the Ocean Ridge Plantation community. Here the tornado became exceptionally powerful as it damaged or destroyed a large number of well-built brick homes.  Wind speeds of at least 160 mph are inferred to have occurred as several homes suffered complete destruction of all walls. Debris from one home was swept completely clear of the foundation.  Multiple fatalities and injuries occurred.

tornado damage

A destroyed home on Cambria Court in Ocean Ridge Plantation, Brunswick County, NC

tornado damage

A destroyed home on Cambria Court in Ocean Ridge Plantation, Brunswick County, NC


tornado damage

Significant damage to a home on Windsor Circle in Ocean Ridge Plantation

tornado damage

A destroyed mobile home along U.S. Highway 17


The tornado crossed US Highway 17 near the entrance to Ocean Ridge Plantation.  A double-wide mobile home on the north side of Highway 17 was rolled over and destroyed by winds estimated near 110 mph.  The tornado continued moving northeastward through the woods and approached Green Bay Road NW.  NWS storm survey crews noted hundreds of downed trees along the tornado's path along with unusual damage to large metal power poles that were leaning.  Wind speeds of at least 115 mph were needed to create this degree of damage.

Additional homes were damaged and an attached storage building was destroyed along Old Shallotte Road as the tornado continued moving northeastward. Damage observed here implied wind speeds near 135 mph.

Tree damage along Green Bay Road

Damage to trees along Green Bay Road

Damage to a home along Old Shallotte Road

Damaged homes and storage buildings along Old Shallotte Road


The tornado crossed Whiteville Road (NC Highway 130) where damaged power lines and downed trees were noted.  Aerial photography confirms there was a continuous path of enormous tree damage extending for many miles to the northeast across uninhabited forest and swamp land past Whiteville Road.  The tornado crossed Federal Road NW near the Bear Pen Airstrip.  NWS Storm Survey crews noted that in addition to damage from the tornado, they found evidence that a strong microburst occurred north of the tornado's path at this location with hundreds of trees pushed down in a "distinctly fanned out" fashion.

The tornado then crossed Green Swamp Road (NC Highway 211) where hundreds more trees were blown down.  The tornado continued moving northeastward for almost 3 miles into private logging land, damaging many more trees before finally lifting.

Tornado damage along Green Swamp Rd

Tornado damage along Green Swamp Rd.

Tornado damage NE of Green Swamp Rd

Significant tree damage continued across private forestland east of Green Swamp Rd.



Weather Pattern


weather map valid near the time of the Brunswick County tornado on February 15, 2021

On February 15, 2021 a warm front was lifting north across the Carolinas ahead of low pressure approaching from the west. Temperatures which had been in the 40s most of the day quickly warmed into the 60s that evening as the front moved through. 


Automated mesoanalysis from the Storm Prediction Center showed instability had grown to over 1000 J/kg with effective bulk shear around 45 knots at 11pm EST on February 15.  These two parameters representing instability and wind shear were supporting an area of strong thunderstorms which were moving northeastward across South Carolina. As the storms encountered the warm front, rotation tightened further and allowed the tornado to form across Brunswick County.


A volunteer weather station in Ocean Ridge reporting through Weather Underground stopped updating as the storm destroyed power lines.  The last data received from this weather station at 11:36 pm showed a 0.07 in Hg (2.4 millibar) drop in pressure in just two minutes as the tornado approached.


Infrared satellite with lightning showing the storm system that produced the Brunswick County tornado of Feb 15, 2021


The paper Vulnerability to Nocturnal Tornadoes by Ashley, Krmenec, and Schwantes (2007) found that only 27% of U.S. tornadoes occurred at night, but 42% of deadly tornadoes were nighttime events.  North Carolina's statistics are even more concerning: North Carolina leads the nation with 75% of all tornado fatalities occurring at night.


Other links of interest

Brunswick County's tornado history since 1950

Washington Post:  3 dead, 10 injured as tornado tears through North Carolina coast

WWAY TV:  EF-3 tornado leaves three dead, 10 injured in Brunswick County

WECT TV:  Community comes together to support those hit by deadly tornado

Wilmington Star-News:  A freak storm: Brunswick County tornado victims held on with prayer as the storm passed




Page Author: Tim Armstrong
Created: February 16, 2021

Last Updated: February 19, 2021