At least 37 people are dead following a week-long outbreak of storms that tore through much of the southeastern portion of the nation, spawning severe weather and tornadoes from Oklahoma to the Carolinas.
Voluntary organizations were busy organizing assessments and possible response.
In the Carolinas, the North Carolina Annual Conference issued an appeal for donations and in Oklahoma United Methodists provided a large donation of hammers and tack stripping for use in applying tarps to roofs damaged by the storm. The Salvation Army is providing canteens for survivors and the Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief is cooking meals while their chainsaw crews are assisting with debris removal.
The storm system spawned at least 62 tornado reports in North Carolina Saturday, where at least 22 people have been confirmed dead in the Raleigh area and 10 in Bertie County, located in the northeast corner of the state.
In addition to Raleigh, fatalities were reported in the communities of Benson, Bladenboro, Godwin, Broadway and in the Ammon area north of Elizabethtown.
Reports remained sketchy Sunday as rescuers continued to search through debris and damaged structures for additional victims and National Weather Service teams began to mobilize to assess the damage.
In Raleigh, search and rescue teams spent Sunday combing through the wreckage, fearing the death toll would rise. Much of the worst damage was on the north side of the city near Wake Forest University.
“The damage is massive. I fully expect we’ll see more fatalities,” rescue worker Mike Willis said. “We have large, new, well-built homes completely destroyed; they’re just piles of rubble. A lot of these houses don’t have basements or shelters, so I’d be surprised if we don’t have some victims in there.”
Willis also said the amount of devastation was so significant, it would take time to complete the search.
“I really can’t say how long, but it’s tough going in there. We’re being very careful; we sure don’t want to overlook anyone, especially someone who may still be alive and trapped,” he said. “It’s also pretty hot, exhausting work. We need to spell our people to make sure they don’t get dehydrated.”
Three of those who died in Raleigh were members of the same family who were caught in their mobile home when a rain-wrapped tornado hit. Given the degree of damage, local officials estimated the twister to have been an EF-3, or possibly even an EF-4, storm.
According to preliminary reports from the City of Raleigh, the most severe damage occurred in the areas of South Saunders Street near Western Boulevard and IH-40, the Stony Brook mobile home park, neighborhoods surrounding Shaw University, Buffalo Road, New Hope Road and Yonkers Road. The Stony Brook mobile home park was where the three family members died.
One hundred miles to the east, officials in Bertie County said at least 10 people died in the storm. One tornado moved homes off their foundation and, in some cases, turned the houses into unrecognizable piles of debris. In one case, crews removing trees blocking Hwy. 42 discovered several bodies in a debris pile.
Although the number of people left homeless in North Carolina by the tornado outbreak is not yet known, both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army immediately mobilized to provide emergency shelter, clothing and food for storm victims. At least 10 emergency shelters were opened throughout the affected area Saturday night. More will be opened if needed, rescue workers said.
In Bertie County, a shelter was opened at the rescue squad headquarters on Highway 42 in Colerain. Nearby Camp Lejeune opened at the Tarawa Terrace II elementary school for storm refugees.
Red Cross shelters were operational in such areas as Wilson, Snow Hill, Jacksonville, Farmville and Roanoke Rapids.
“We are aware of major damage in numerous communities across Eastern North Carolina. Red Cross volunteers began damage assessment in those areas Saturday and will continue on Sunday.” said Lynwood Roberson, Regional Executive for the American Red Cross in Eastern North Carolina. “We ask that individuals not affected by these storms stay home so emergency officials and Red Cross staff and volunteers can continue assessing damage and providing relief to the victims of these storms. This is still a very dangerous situation due to down power lines and flooded roads.”
The Red Cross reported it provided 67 people with emergency shelter, meals, and snacks overnight Saturday. Other shelters reported feeding and housing another 45 – 60 people.
Resident Aaron Wilkins’ home was spared when a tornado missed his neighborhood by only a block, but he said he witnessed Salvation Army workers on scene within hours to provide aid to storm victims. Wilkins said it changed his mind about the organization.
“Man, they were there doing anything and everything they could for those poor folks. It really warms the heart,” Wilkins said. “I’ve always dropped my change in those little buckets at Christmas-time; from now on, I’m going to dig a lot deeper. They’re really doing God’s work here.”
Forecasters at Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather called the destruction left behind by the storms “awe-striking,” noting the same system already had a death toll estimated at 17 after triggering tornadoes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Alabama earlier in the week.
AccuWeather’s Justin Roberti said before striking Raleigh, the same twister had been described by an emergency manager as “large and destructive” when it tore through nearby Holly Springs around 3:40 p.m. before hitting the state capital.
AccuWeather also reported a tornado that ripped through the Sanford and Broadway areas reportedly destroyed at least 30 homes and a Lowe's, while also severely damaging a Wal Mart and Big Lots.
Two fatalities were reported by the twister but, amazingly, none in the virtually destroyed Lowe’s. Local officials credited a quick-thinking store manager with herding about 100 customers and employees into the back of the store before the tornado hit. While the front of the store was demolished and cars in the parking lot were flipped on their roofs, the rear of the store protected those taking shelter.
Near Union Ridge, more than two dozen buildings, three homes and a barn were destroyed.
In Roanoke Rapids, a tornado reportedly ripped off the roof of a convalescent home with patients having to be evacuated.
Reports also said one person was killed and others seriously injured when a tornado hit near Godwin Saturday evening.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said the 62 tornadoes were the most since March 1984, when a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas, killing 57 people, 42 of which were in North Carolina. That outbreak also injured hundreds.
Perdue declared a state of emergency following the tornado outbreak, putting the state’s emergency management plan into action and providing access to resources needed to aid communities affected by the storms.
In a separate order, the governor also temporarily suspended the restrictions on work hours for utility workers to allow the work necessary to repair power lines. The same order temporarily waived the restriction on driving hours for truck drivers to allow for the transportation of supplies to affected communities and for the removal of debris.
Perdue spent most of Sunday touring the six counties that were hit hardest by the storms.
In other tornado reports, no one was injured near Bonneau, S.C., when a church collapsed during a storm. Six people were inside the Refuge Temple, but all escaped serious injury.
Craig Robinson was inside cleaning the church in preparation for Sunday services when the tornado hit. He said he prayed.
“I bent down on my knees and asked the Lord to have mercy,” Robinson told local reporters.
Hundreds of trees in South Carolina were also downed.
As of early Saturday evening – before the deadly outbreak in the Carolinas – there had been more than 210 reports of tornadoes from the Plains into the Midwest and Deep South since Thursday, according to AccuWeather.
Most of the 100 reports from Friday alone came out of Mississippi and Alabama. Thursday's reports were focused largely in eastern Oklahoma, though there were a few in Kansas, northeastern Texas and Alabama.
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