RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A furious storm system that kicked up
tornadoes, flash floods and hail as big as softballs has claimed at
least 35 lives on a rampage that began in Oklahoma days ago, then
smashed across several Southern states as it reached a new and
deadly pitch in North Carolina and Virginia.
Emergency crews searched for victims in hard-hit swaths of North
Carolina, where 62 tornadoes were reported from the worst spring
storm in two decades to hit the state. Ten people were confirmed
dead in Bertie County, county manager Zee Lamb said. At least three
deaths were reported in Virginia. Authorities warned the toll was
likely to rise further Sunday as searchers probed shattered homes
The storm claimed its first lives Thursday night in Oklahoma,
then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Seven people each were killed in Arkansas and Alabama, two people
in Oklahoma and one person in Mississippi, authorities have said.
In North Carolina, Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of
emergency after reporting fatalities in at least four counties. But
she declined to immediately confirm an exact number of deaths. She
said the 62 tornadoes reported were the most since March 1984, when
a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas that killed 57
people - 42 in North Carolina - and injured hundreds.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody in North Carolina
who has been through this horrible day," Perdue said.
Daybreak brought news of a horrific death toll in Bertie County,
a place of about 21,000 people about 130 miles east of Raleigh. The
tornado moved through about 7 p.m. Saturday, sweeping homes from
their foundations, demolishing others and flipping cars on tiny
rural roads between Askewville and Colerian, Lamb said.
One of the volunteers who scoured the rubble was an Iraq war
veteran who told Lamb he was stunned by what he saw.
"He did two tours of duty in Iraq and the scene was worse than
he ever saw in Iraq - that's pretty devastating," Lamb said.
As dawn broke, dozens of firefighters, volunteers and other
officials were meeting in a makeshift command center to form search
teams to fan out to the hardest-hit areas.
"There were several cases of houses being totally demolished
except for one room, and that's where the people were," he said.
"They survived. Pretty devastating."
Authorities in North Carolina said they would provide more
details of the death toll later Sunday after checking on the
reports of fatalities in at least four counties and in the capital
city of Raleigh. Search and rescue teams operated through the
night, Perdue said, with damage assessments starting in earnest
Sunday after daylight.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done in these areas
that are most heavily impacted," said Doug Hoell, the state's
director of emergency management. "There's a lot of debris out
there that's got to be cleaned up."
In Virginia, disaster officials said one apparent tornado ripped
across more than 12 miles through Gloucester County, uprooting
trees and pounding homes to rubble while claiming three lives.
Another person was confirmed dead and another remained missing
early Sunday after flash flooding elsewhere in Virginia.
Scenes of destruction across the South looked eerily similar in
In North Carolina, rooftops were ripped off stores, trees were
plucked from the ground and scores of homes were damaged, Hoell
At one point, more than 250,000 people went without power in
North Carolina before emergency utility crews began repairing
downed lines. But scattered outages were expected to linger at
least until Monday.
Among areas hit by power outages was Raleigh, a bustling city of
more than 400,000 people where some of the bigger downtown
thoroughfares were blocked by fallen trees early Sunday.
Police and rescue crews began conducting house-to-house searches
later Saturday at a mobile home park in north Raleigh, where the
storm snapped some trees in half, ripped others out of the ground
and tossed some trailers from one side of a street to the other.
In Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh, a busy shopping
district was pummeled by the storms, with some businesses losing
rooftops in what observers described as a ferocious tornado. The
Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford looked flattened, with
jagged beams and wobbly siding sticking up from the pancaked
entrance. Cars in the parking lot were flipped by the winds.
"It's very, very bad here," said Monica Elliott, who works at
the nearby Brick City Grill. "We saw a tornado that just rode up
over the restaurant."
Remarkably, no one was seriously injured at the Lowe's, thanks
to a quick-thinking manager who herded more than 100 people into a
back area with no windows to shatter.
"It was really just a bad scene," said Jeff Blocker, Lowe's
regional vice president for eastern North Carolina. "You're just
amazed that no one was injured."
Cindy Hall, a Red Cross volunteer and outreach minister at First
Baptist Church in Sanford, said dozens of homes in the area were
"It wiped out our St. Andrews neighborhood, which includes
about 30 homes," she said.
To the west, hikers stranded by flash floods had to be rescued.
In Virginia, Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob
Spieldenner, said an apparent tornado ploughed through communities
of Gloucester County, destroying or damaging homes, uprooting trees
in a quiet farming and fishing region along the Chesapeake Bay.
"I know it was a pretty long path," he said of the reported
tornado. "They estimated it was 12 to 14 miles" based on 911
Authorities said at least three deaths had been confirmed in
Gloucester County and at least 60 were injured, most with minor
injuries. Spieldenner said one person was killed when a vehicle ran
into flash flooding near Waynesboro. Another person was missing and
a third rescued.
He reported homes and mobile homes damaged and destroyed in a
series of other Virginia counties and flash flooding west of
Charlottesville that prompted water rescues - including four people
rescued unhurt from a car that had plunged into deep water flowing
over a street.
Associated Press writers Page Ivey in Columbia, S.C., Jackie
Quinn in Washington, D.C., and Jeff Martin and Jacob Jordan in
Atlanta contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)