Monday, April 18, 2011

A furious storm system that kicked up tornadoes, flash floods and hail as big as grapefruits has claimed at least 45 lives across the southern U.S.

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. Authorities warned the death toll was likely to rise further Sunday as searchers probed shattered homes and businesses.

The storm claimed its first lives Thursday night in Oklahoma, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. They hit North Carolina and neighbouring Virginia on Saturday before the sprawling, potent storm bands moved eastward over the Atlantic.

When Jonathan Robinson saw a tornado moving toward his mobile home in Dunn, N.C., he grabbed his cousin's 3-month-old son and dashed for a closet in his bedroom. But as he dove for safety, the twister took his home apart around him and swept the baby into the dark, swirling afternoon sky.

“As soon as I jumped in the closet, it came down and that little baby flew out of my hand,” he said. “I seen him leave my arms. That's how strong the wind was.”

Immediately after digging himself out, Mr. Robinson joined family members at the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park frantically digging through the rubble for little Ayden.

“I thought he was lost,” Mr. Robinson said.

Several long minutes later, someone found the boy under a wooden board, unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, where miraculously emergency room workers found only minor injuries.

“He's really blessed to be here right now,” said Ayden's mom, Ciera Robinson, as the boy's grandmother sat nearby giving the baby a bottle. “He ended up with a lump on his head. It wasn't nothing major.”

In North Carolina, Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency and said the 62 tornadoes reported were the most deadly since March 1984, when a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas that killed 57 people and injured hundreds.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody in North Carolina who has been through this horrible day,” Ms. Perdue said.

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, Raleigh. Search and rescue teams operated through the night, Ms. Perdue said, with damage assessments starting in earnest Sunday after daylight.

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.

Authorities said 10 people were confirmed dead after storms spawning tornadoes swept through a small eastern North Carolina county.

Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said Sunday that one person also was missing. He said authorities had identified nine of the dead but did not release their names or ages.

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, N.C., Mr. 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,” Mr. Lamb said.

As dawn broke, dozens of firefighters, volunteers and other officials were meeting in a makeshift command centre 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.”

In Virginia, disaster officials said one apparent tornado ripped more than 12 miles (19 kilometres) through Gloucester County, along the Chesapeake Bay, uprooting trees and pounding homes to rubble while claiming three lives. One person was killed in flash flooding elsewhere in the state, and another was missing.


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