Video: Storm survivor: 'It was madness'

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    >> path barrelled and rolled across the country from the plain states to the deep south . it spread a lot of disaster. there were a number of close calls, weather channel meteorologist jeff morrow is also with us tonight from north carolina . jeff, i watched your coverage all weekend long. an incredible intensity of weather.

    >> reporter: yeah, brian . reports of 240 tornadoes have investigators scrambling. they've already confirmed 150 tornadoes. to put that into context, we typically see 163 tornadoes for the entire month of april. the rampage went on for days, terrifying tornadoes touched down in 15 states. the harrowing moments caught on tape.

    >> we got two, three. oh.

    >> reporter: thursday tushka, oklahoma, not one but several twisters violently spin around each other.

    >> oh, my god. this is not good, guys.

    >> reporter: friday, clinton, mississippi, a tornado works across an overpass and blue power flashes light up the sky .

    >> there goes the roof off the house.

    >> reporter: saturday wilson, north carolina , a walgreens store is ripped to shreds. zee

    >> that's a walgreens exploding.

    >> reporter: it's the deadliest outbreak in the u.s. in three years. at least 44 deaths in six states. all the ingredients come together to create the perfect storm . in this case a big upper air disturbance in the jet steam.

    >> is came charging east-southeast and met up with moist air in the gulf of mexico .

    >> in gloucester, virginia, he barely escaped.

    >> it sounded like a train was coming to hit the house.

    >> wow.

    >> reporter: in raleigh, north carolina this car still has its lights on and its beeping.

    >> this person must have got out of the car fast. you can hear it .t

    >> the tornadoes were moving very fast in this case. you had little time to seek shelter.

    >> reporter: in boones chapel, alabama the tornado that hit this small town packed 150-mile-per-hour winds. in hard-hit north carolina at least five tornadoes reached similar wind speeds , and that tornado that hit the lowe's traveled more than 60 miles on a fast and brutal path. and, brian , it doesn't look like the nation will get a chance to catch its breath severe weatherwise. they already have a moderate risk of severe weather including the possibility of more tornados from oklahoma to arkansas into the ohio valley for tomorrow and tomorrow night. brian .

    >> jeff morrow , the weather channel , with us from north carolina tonight. jeff, thanks for that. staff and news service reports
updated 4/18/2011 7:10:12 PM ET 2011-04-18T23:10:12

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue said Monday she had never seen anything like the devastation that a series of powerful tornadoes unleashed upon her state.

"It was like paper doll houses that were collapsed," Perdue said on NBC's TODAY. "Thousands of pieces of furniture ... were strewn all over 25 counties. Lives disrupted, communities disrupted."

Perdue confirmed 21 deaths in North Carolina and said that hundreds were in hospitals as search and rescue teams continued to look for survivors.

"The good news for us, though, is that yesterday people began to rebuild their lives," she said. "That's the beauty of North Carolina; we know how to face adversity."

The storms crushed trailer parks and brought life in the center of Raleigh, the state's second-largest city, to a virtual standstill. It was the worst outbreak in the state since 22 twisters in 1984 killed 42 people.

The state's emergency management agency said initial reports indicate more than 130 homes were destroyed and more than 700 damaged, some severely.

In Virginia, a tornado touched down on the switchyard and access path of a nuclear power station Saturday, cutting power to two generators and kicking its back-up generators into gear.

Story: Twister cuts power to Virginia nuclear plant

Perdue planned to tour hard-hit areas in three counties Monday. The devastation she saw Sunday left her near tears, she said. The storm pummeled bustling cities and remote rural communities. One of Perdue's stops was downtown Raleigh, where fallen trees blocked major thoroughfares and damage to the Shaw University campus forced it to cancel the remainder of its spring semester.

Perdue said she'd been in contact with President Barack Obama, who pledged his support, and that federal emergency management workers were already on the ground.

"We have in North Carolina a tremendous relationship with our federal partners, and have been through this so many times," she said. "That's not a good thing. That's a bad thing."

Speaking on TODAY, Perdue described the massive destruction to agricultural land. "We've seen thousands of acres of land devastated and disrupted," she said.

"I don't know how we'll cope with that or what kind of assistance will be there — they need labor on the ground to plow and re-seed the fields. ... This is the first major agricultural hit North Carolina has ever had."

Miraculous escape
Lowe's store assistant manager Bobby Gibson described on TODAY the remarkable details of how more than 100 employees and customers survived in the company's Sanford store, which was pummeled by a tornado.

He and the manager, Michael Hollowell, went to the front of the store when they heard a commotion. "We could see the cloud ... it was more of a wall of rain and debris coming toward the store from the parking lot across from us," Bobby Gibson said.

Though the employees had been trained to deal with disasters, nothing had prepared them for peril on this scale. "We were just reacting off instinct," Gibson said. "We had roughly 90 seconds to 2 minutes to … react and try to get everyone to the safest part of the building, the rear of the building."

Customer Gary Hendricks said one man was skeptical that it was a tornado and urged other customers not to follow the employees to the back of the store.

But quick-thinking employees regained control of the situation. "When that man said that, that could have been disaster," Hendricks said on TODAY. "One of the employees said, 'Listen, folks, let's not be stupid. Everyone head [to] the back of the store.'"

It took only a few seconds for the tornado to reduce the front of the building to a jagged mass of twisted steel and shattered glass.

"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell said.

Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 45 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.

In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality.

In Raleigh early Monday, authorities were blocking access to a mobile home park of about 200 homes where three children were killed. Officials planned to assess conditions after sunrise before deciding whether to allow residents to return home.

Power lines and trees still covered nearby roads. Where roads were clear, there were massive piles of debris that had been pushed to the side of the street.

Survivors were left to recall miraculous escapes.

Like 'The Wizard of Oz'
In the Bladen County community of Ammon, about 70 miles south of Raleigh, Audrey McKoy and her husband Milton saw a tornado bearing down on them over the tops of the pine trees that surround the seven or eight mobile homes that make up their neighborhood. He glanced at a nearby farm and saw the winds lifting pigs and other animals in the sky.

"It looked just like 'The Wizard of Oz,'" Audrey said.

They took shelter in their laundry room, and after emerging once the storm had passed, were disoriented for a moment. The twister had turned their mobile home around and they were standing in their backyard.

Video: Deadly storms kill dozens across 6 states  (on this page)

Milton found three bodies in their neighborhood, including 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony, who died in adjacent mobile homes. He stopped his wife from coming over to see.

"You don't want to look at this," he told her.

'Some mighty fine neighbors' lost
One place Gov. Perdue was scheduled to visit was Bertie County, where storms were deadliest. At least 11 residents died, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said, including three members of the same family.

Jean Burkett lived near Roy and Barbara Lafferty and Barbara's mother, Helen White, in Colerain. Burkett and Barbara Lafferty graduated from high school together in 1964 and had always been neighbors. On Sunday, at her relatively untouched home, Burkett pointed out a row of four or five about 400 yards away that had been demolished. The Laffertys and Helen White died in their home.

"The neighborhood has lost some mighty fine neighbors," Burkett said. "It's the worst thing we've ever seen."

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The violent weather began Thursday in Oklahoma, where two people died, before cutting across the Deep South on Friday and hitting North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday. Authorities said seven people died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; seven in Virginia; and one in Mississippi.

More than 240 tornadoes were reported from the storm system, including 62 in North Carolina, but the National Weather Service's final numbers could be lower because some tornadoes may have been reported more than once.

The state emergency management agency said it had reports of 23 fatalities from Saturday's storms, but local officials confirmed only 21 deaths to The Associated Press.

The conditions that allowed for the storm occur on the Great Plains maybe twice a year, but they almost never happen in North Carolina, according to Scott Sharp, a weather service meteorologist in Raleigh.

The atmosphere was unstable Saturday, which allows air to rise and fall quickly, creating winds of hurricane strength or greater. There was also plenty of moisture in the air, which fuels violent storms. Shear winds at different heights, moving in different directions, created the spin needed to create tornadoes, Sharp said.

Vulnerable homes
Many of the deaths across the state occurred in mobile homes like the ones in Ammon. The three deaths in Raleigh were in a mobile home park about five miles north of downtown, which was still closed off to residents early Monday.

Census data from 2007, the latest available, estimates 14.5 percent of residences in North Carolina are mobile homes, the seventh highest percentage in the nation and well over the U.S. average of 6.7 percent.

North Carolina officials tallied more than 130 serious injuries, 65 homes destroyed and another 600 significantly damaged by Sunday evening, according to state public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema. Officials expect those totals to climb as damage assessments continue.

Back at the Lowe's store, Joseph Rosser and his 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, had pulled their Chevrolet Colorado pickup off the road Saturday, seeking shelter. Instead, the store's exterior concrete toppled, crushing the truck's cab with both inside.

"I really didn't see much because I had a pillow over my face to protect my head and I heard my dad tell me it was going to be OK," Hannah said. "And then all of a sudden, I just heard a loud boom.

"My dad was lying there, telling me he was going to die," said Hannah, her midsection wrapped in a back brace. "He sounded very hoarse like he couldn't breathe. He was crying and was hurt really bad."

She crawled out the truck's shattered back window and ran around the parking lot calling for help, because her cell phone wouldn't work. Both Rossers are recovering from their injuries.

While the death toll may climb and while it will be weeks before final damage assessments are completed, residents and officials alike are looking to make repairs and start building what was lost.

Aleta Tootle and four other people sheltered in a closet in her Bertie County home, emerging with only a few scratches after the rest of the building was ripped to shreds. Surveying the wreckage Sunday, she said there was only one thing left to do.

"All we can do is start over," she said. "We don't have a choice."

The Associated Press and staff contributed to this report.

Photos: Dozens dead after storms rip through 6 states

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  1. Dade County High School student Marcella Lackey, second left, dances with Craig Holmes, left, at her high school prom in Dade County, Ga., on Saturday, May 14. Two weeks after a tornado devastated their town, students from Dade County High came together for their prom, hoping the traditional teenage rite of passage can help them regain a sense of normalcy. (Billy Weeks / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial photo taken on April 17 shows a home severely damaged by a tornado that ripped through Gloucester, Va. on April 16. Tornadoes and flash flooding have left several people dead in Virginia, and crews are continuing to assess damage that severe weekend storms caused across several areas of the state. (Randall Greenwell / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tornado victim Clay Anderson, left, with his dog Mindy, sits on the steps of his back porch and talks with American Red Cross volunteer Kathi Garrett in the Saint Andrews community in Sanford, N.C. on April 17. (Wesley Beeson / The Sanford Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Nathaniel Ramey, left, comforts Megan Hurst at her grandmother's house in Askewville, N.C. on April 17 after a tornado struck the previous day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. This aerial photo taken on April 17 shows a home severely damaged by a tornado that ripped through Gloucester, Va. on April 16. (Randall Greenwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Kathy Gay looks up at the damaged ceiling in the home of her brother Gary Jordan on April 17 in Gloucester, Va. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A car is swallowed up by a hole left after a tree fell as a tornado passed just south of downtown Raleigh, N.C. on April 17. (Stan Gilliland / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The remains of two school buses at Page Middle School in Gloucester, Va. on April 17, a day after the tornado hit. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Chris Nelson hugs his daughter Andrea, 15, in the parking lot in front of Lowe's hardware store in Sanford, N.C. on April 17, a day after a tornado destroyed the building while the Nelsons were inside shopping. The Nelsons returned Sunday to reclaim their truck, back right. (Ted Richardson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. An aerial photo shows tornado damage at the Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford, N.C. on April 17. (Thomas Babb / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Mary Grady sits in her neighbor's yard where she rode out a tornado in Askewville, N.C. on April 17. Her home was destroyed in the storm. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A woman inspects her home and car in Raleigh, N.C. on April 17, after homes and businesses were badly damaged Saturday by a severe storm system that whipped across the state. It brought flash floods, hail and reports of tornadoes from the western hills to the streets of Raleigh. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Debris fill the street after a tornado hit Raleigh, N.C., April 17. Tornadoes tore through the Carolinas on Saturday afternoon as the death toll rose to at least 45 people from the storms across the southern United States over the last three days. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Raleigh police officer J.L. Bloodworth speaks with a man seeking information about relatives who live at the Stoney Brook Mobile Home Park in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, April 16, where three people where killed. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A worker takes a picture of the damage left behind by a tornado in Raleigh, N.C. (Chris Keane / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Jeffrey Tan, 13, left, sits on the tree that fell on his great-grandmother's house, Saturday, April 16, in Raleigh, N.C. (Chris Seward / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An auto repair shop lost its back wall and roof after a tornado ripped through the area, Saturday, April 16, in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Emergency personnel confer in front of Lowe's Home Improvement after it was hit by a tornado in Sanford, N.C., Saturday, April 16. "The Lowe's Home Improvement has been flattened," said Monica Elliott, who works at the nearby Brick City Grill. "It's totally destroyed." (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A.C. Bivens looks at the damage to his home after a tornado ripped through Washington County, Ala., on April 16. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Family and friends go through the debris of what is left of Gene Box's trailer after a tornado killed her and two of her children while ripping through Washington County, Ala., on April 16. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Only stairs and flowers remain Saturday, April 16, after severe winds tore a mobile home off its lot late Friday night in Boone's Chapel, Ala. (Amanda Sowards / Montgomery Advertiser via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Bill Mosley, right, urges his daughter Lisa Mosley to walk carefully through the spare bedroom, fearful that she step on a roofing nail as the two gather possessions from the tornado damaged house in Clinton, Miss., Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Standing amid downed trees and destroyed houses, members of Southside Baptist Church of Yazoo City, give a prayer of thanks following several hours of work cutting up trees and removing storm debris in this Clinton, Miss., neighborhood, Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A car drives through a partially flooded street, Friday, April 15, 2011 in Decatur, Ala. (John Godbey / The Decatur Daily via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Storms continue to brew as I-20 is shut down after a morning tornado downed power lines and overturned cars and trucks Friday, April 15, in Clinton, Miss. (Brian Albert Broom / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Friends and neighbors help tornado stricken residents remove possessions in east Clinton, Miss., Friday, April 15. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A billboard lays collapsed on the ground after a tornado went through Friday, April 15, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Michelle Lepianka Carter / The Tuscaloosa News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Makala Welch helps her grandparents clean up after a tornado touched down in Clinton, Miss., April 15. (Charles Smith / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Jerome Whittington attempts to salvage belongings through the window of his automobile in Tushka, Okla., Friday, April 15. (Sue Ogrocki / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Two women stand in the middle of what used to be houses after a large tornado hit the small town of 350 people, killing two, in Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A woman removes belongings from a house damaged after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Evan Whitehead walks past a family member's vehicle and house while looking for belongings after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Volunteers pitch in to remove branches from a fallen oak tree in Tushka, Okla., Friday, April 15, following a tornado. (Sue Ogrocki / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Denym Pingleton, left, carries her books out of the inside of what is left of their school with fellow students Kayla Wilhite, right, and Courtney Wilhite after a large tornado hit Tushka, Okla., April 15. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A severe storm passes over east Tulsa and the Renaissance Hotel, in Tulsa, Okla., April 14. (James Gibbard / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: 2011 tornado season

  1. Above: Interactive 2011 tornado season
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