SANFORD, N.C. — 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."
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."
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.
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 msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.