RALEIGH, N.C. — Rescue crews searched for survivors in wind-blasted landscapes Sunday in North Carolina, the state hardest hit by a storm system that spawned dozens of tornadoes from Oklahoma to Virginia and left at least 45 people dead.
The spring storm, North Carolina’s deadliest in two decades, spun off 62 tornadoes in that state alone Saturday night. Eleven people were confirmed dead in rural Bertie County, county manager Zee Lamb said.
Another four were confirmed dead in Bladen County, bringing the state’s death toll to at least 21.
In the capital city of Raleigh, three family members died in a mobile home park, said Wake County spokeswoman Sarah Williamson-Baker. At that trailer park, residents lined up outside Sunday and asked police guarding the area when they might get back in.
The storm claimed its first lives Thursday night in Oklahoma, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Authorities have said seven died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; two in Oklahoma; and one in Mississippi. In Virginia, local emergency officials reported seven storm-related deaths, said Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner.
Spieldenner said the state medical examiner’s office confirmed one person died in Gloucester, where a tornado hit; two died in flash flooding in Waynesboro; and one person died in Wythe County when a tree fell on a mobile home.
Officials were still investigating another two deaths reported in Gloucester and one in Page County.
In North Carolina, Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency and 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.
Daybreak brought news of a horrific death toll in Bertie County, about 130 miles (210 kilometres) 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 Colerain, Lamb said. At least three of those who died were from the same family, he 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.
The county was devastated by flooding last October with the water submerging the county seat of Windsor, damaging 200 homes and businesses. No one lost their lives in the flooding.
Scenes of destruction across the South looked eerily similar in many areas.
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.
At the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park in Dunn, one woman died while another man was critically hurt when a car was blown atop him outside his home, said Police Chief B.P. Jones. More than half the 40 homes in the park were unrecognizable piles of debris Sunday morning.
In Bladen County, the dead included a 92-year-old father and his 50-year-old son. They were killed when they were thrown from their adjacent mobile homes in the town of Ammon.
A 52-year-old woman also died in Ammon, and a 50-year-old man died in Bladenboro — both also thrown from their homes, County Medical Examiner Kenneth Clark said.
Bladen County emergency management chief Bradley Kinlaw said 82 homes were damaged and 25 destroyed in Saturday’s storms. The path of destruction was narrow — but at least six miles (10 kilometres) long, he said.
In Sanford, about 40 miles (65 kilometres) 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.
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.”