Victims of the tornado in North Carolina were trying to reassemble their lives Friday after the twister flipped cars, shredded trees and ripped mobile homes to pieces, killing at least eight people, authorities said.
Damage assessment teams are expected in this little riverside community on Friday. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley plans to survey the damage from the air before meeting with local officials.
The disaster brought the two-day death toll from a devastating line of thunderstorms that swept across the South to 12.
Kip Godwin, chairman of the Columbus County Commission in North Carolina, said authorities had concluded their search of the area where the eight deaths occurred — a cluster of mobile homes and an adjacent neighborhood of brick homes — and had accounted for everyone.
Twelve people were hospitalized, including four children in critical condition, hospital officials said.
The storms, which began Wednesday, unleashed tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned mobile homes and tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines across the South.
In Louisiana, a man died Wednesday when a tornado struck his home. In South Carolina, a utility worker checking power lines Thursday during the storm was electrocuted. In North Carolina, two people died in car crashes as heavy rain pounded the state, dropping as much as five inches in some areas.
Off the coast, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a pump to a fishing boat that was taking on water in 15-foot seas about 50 miles from Charleston. One crewman was aboard the 34-foot boat, which the Coast Guard escorted back to land.
‘There was no warning’
The tornado that struck Riegelwood — situated on the Cape Fear River about 20 miles west of Wilmington — hit shortly after 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
“There was no warning. There was no time,” said Cissy Kennedy, a radiologist’s assistant who lives in the area. “It just came out from nowhere.”
As many as 40 mobile homes were damaged before the tornado crossed a highway and leveled three brick homes. About 100 people were left homeless, and dozens planned to sleep at a shelter established at a nearby elementary school. At least two of the dead were children, Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten said.
Household debris, including carpet and a laundry basket, was scattered along a road. The storm dumped a minivan in a ditch, and an open refrigerator that still had food inside was filled with rainwater.
County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs said four to five mobile homes were demolished, and there were "houses on top of cars and cars on top of houses."
"We've stepped across bodies to get to debris and search for other bodies here this morning," Jacobs said.
The storm knocked out power to 45,000 customers in North Carolina. But the electricity was back on in most places by mid-afternoon.
The storm also caused minor flooding in the Washington area, where rescuers grabbed several people stranded in their vehicles, and slowed commuters as far north as Newark, N.J.
'That home just exploded'
A tornado cut a path about two miles wide and three or four miles long in Greensburg, La., north of New Orleans, on Wednesday, toppling trees and damaging buildings and power lines, said Maj. Michael Martin of the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office. A 43-year-old man was killed when the trailer he was in was destroyed, he said.
“That home just exploded,” said Gordon Burgess, president of neighboring Tangipahoa Parish.
In Montgomery, Ala., high winds destroyed a skating rink Wednesday soon after 31 preschoolers and four adults fled to the only part of the building that turned out to be safe.
One child suffered a broken bone and another a cut to the head, but everyone else emerged unharmed from the crumpled wreck of the Fun Zone Skate Center, which doubled as a day-care facility.
In Mississippi’s Lamar County, emergency operations center director James Smith said a possible tornado struck a subdivision outside Sumrall around 2:50 a.m., damaging or destroying 11 homes.
Smith said six people were taken to hospitals from the Sumrall area, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said two other people were injured in Greene County.