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Workers at Grandfather Mountain described "an unreal" scene early Wednesday when record wind gusts of at least 200 mph battered the North Carolina tourist attraction in the northwest mountains.
"Our workers who were inside the Visitor Center said it was like a tornado -- a whirlwind -- inside the building after the windows broke," said Crae Morton, president of Grandfather Mountain and grandson of Hugh Morton, who developed the tourist site.
Morton said staff members don't know exactly how strong the northwest winds really blew late Tuesday night and early Wednesday.
The National Weather Service-approved anenometer measures only up to 200 mph. Morton said gusts reached that level several times. He said the staff assumes winds exceeded that mark.
It broke the Grandfather Mountain wind record of 195.5 mph, set April 18, 1997. Those winds are believed to be the strongest ever measured in the Carolinas.
The winds were created by a strong storm system over the Northeast. That system pumped chilly air into the Carolinas and the rest of the eastern United States, allowing temperatures to fall into the lower and middle 20's this morning. The low at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport today was 23 degrees, second-coldest this month behind a 22-degree reading Jan. 7.
The coldest readings reported in the Piedmont this morning were 21 degrees at Concord, Albemarle and Lexington.
Morton said the most amazing effect of the winds late Tuesday and early Wednesday was the lifting of a 300-pound boulder in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, at the 5,280-foot level of the mountain -- about 700 feet below the summit. Gusts forced the boulder, which was cemented to the parking lot, to roll over.
"One of our staff members has a picture of that," Morton said.
The winds also blew out several windows in the Visitor Center and caused other damage.
Winds were considerably calmer at the base of the mountain, where the tourists attraction's offices are located. Morton said the top of the mountain was closed to tourists Wednesday.
"It's calmer today," he said. "Earlier this morning, we had some gusts down here of about 50 mph. That means up at the Visitor Center, it was probably gusting around 100 mph."
Morton said that in high wind events, tourists are able to visit the animal habitats and museum at the base of the mountain, but the higher levels are closed.
"Winds that strong could rip the door off your vehicle," he said.
Grandfather Mountain records winds of well over 100 mph several times during the year. Morton said winter is a good time to visit the attraction.
"There are a few days each year when you can see downtown Charlotte from the top," he said. "It takes very clear conditions, and those usually happen in the winter."
Grandfather Mountain is about 100 miles from Charlotte.
The strongest wind in U.S. history was a 231 mph gust measured in 1934 at Mount Washington, N.H.
Grandfather Mountain wasn't alone in feeling the impact of strong winds.
The gusts knocked down trees and power lines across the foothills and mountains. At one time Wednesday morning, more than 10,000 customers were without electricity across the region. All of those outages were repaired by late Wednesday.
This morning's cold weather will be temporary, lasting only a day or two. Despite sunny skies, temperatures today will struggle to reach 50 degrees, which is still 1 degree above normal for this time of year. Then warming will begin.
Highs will climb into the upper 50's Friday and will be near 60 degrees over the weekend.
Forecasters say they see no end in sight to the pattern of the past month -- sporadic, brief cold spells, followed by several days of temperatures well above normal.