RALEIGH, N.C. — A day after a violent storm system swept across seven states, kicking up tornadoes and flattening much in its path, residents began the painful process of cleaning up and mourning those lost.
State officials in North Carolina, which caught the brunt of the violent weather, said Sunday that the death toll is now 22, making it the deadliest thunderstorm system to hit the state in more than two decades. More than 80 people were hospitalized, some with severe injuries, and hundreds of homes were damaged or completely destroyed.
“This is one that will be seared in a lot of peoples’ memories,” said Scott Sharp, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
The toxic weather system _ characterized by strong, shifting winds low in the atmosphere _ spawned tornadoes in the seven states, killing about 40 people since Thursday.
Half of the North Carolina fatalities were in Bertie County, a rural county about 120 miles northeast of Raleigh that has just 21,000 residents.
Two suspected tornadoes cut a wide swath across the county, flattening houses and tossing around farm equipment and vehicles, said Zee Lamb, Bertie’s county manager.
“There are homes that are just totally leveled,” he said. “Anybody who was in those homes could not have survived.”
Among the dead were several elderly residents of an assisted-living facility that was caught in the path of the storm, Lamb said.
Similar scenes of destruction could be found in elsewhere in the state, notable in Wake County, Sanford and Dunn.
In Northeast Raleigh, three children were killed when the mobile home they lived in was crushed by a falling tree. A fourth child, a six-month old girl, is in critical condition.
The scene left neighbors of the victims screaming in vain to help them get their babies out from under the tree.
In the neighborhoods just east and south of downtown Raleigh, there was substantial wind damage, but remarkably no one was killed. Shaw University, founded in 1865 as the first historically black college in the South, announced Saturday it would remain closed for the remainder of the semester because of the damage.
The city of Raleigh had roughly 30 teams out working to clear away debris.
Still, those venturing out Sunday into the damaged neighborhoods near downtown were confronted by an almost eerie absence of officialdom.
Multiple busy intersections had no working stoplights or officers to smooth the flow of traffic.
Occasional private tree services and Progress Energy trucks chipped away at the huge backlog of power outages, but the task was immense. More than 60,000 electricity customers remained without power late Sunday in a swath of counties running from Raleigh to the coast.
Out North King Charles Road, gawkers drove slowly by as neighbors sat in aluminum chairs and talked of the massive old trees that had fallen, and of the near misses that others had experienced.
“My neighbor two doors down? Her house was cut right in two,” said Maurice Richburg.
For many, any sense of shock over the storm’s power was quickly replaced by a desire to help out their neighbors. The air buzzed with the sound of chain saws tearing into fallen oak trees.
People pulled generators out of their garages and invited neighbors to run an extension cord. Others with WiFi access allowed neighbors over to send a quick e-mail to their families.
In Holly Springs, where a suspected tornado lifted the roof off a fire station and left a trail of badly damaged houses, help poured in from surrounding towns.
“We got smacked a lot harder than a lot of people thought,” Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said. “The fortunate part is we had fire departments from about six or seven towns come and help.”
Gov. Bev Perdue spent Sunday touring areas of the state hit the hardest by the storm. She declared a state of emergency for all of North Carolina on Saturday evening, an act that is a prerequisite for asking for federal disaster assistance.
For those caught in the storms’ path, such assistance offered little hope of solving their immediate problems.
As whole streets braced for a second day without power, they tossed blocks of dry ice into their freezers and began scarfing up anything perishable.
With insurance companies warning homeowners they might not see any relief for three or four days, amateur tree-technicians climbed up 20-foot ladders in their back yards and attacked downed limbs on their own.
The storm had its say. Now it was time to get to work.
(Bracken, Goldsmith and Shaffer are staff writers at The News & Observer in Raleigh. Also contributing were N&O staffers Andy Kenney, Andy Specht and John Murawski.)
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