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Poor who lost all in NC tornadoes face hard future

Kimberly Smith,Spot
Kimberly Smith holds her dog Spot as she stands outside her tornado-ravaged home in Askewville, N.C., on Tuesday.  Jim R. Bounds / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kimberly Smith cried and prayed with her children as they huddled inside her trailer when a weekend tornado roared through eastern North Carolina. About 130 miles away and three hours earlier, Cecilia Zuvic cowered in the bathroom of her two-story Raleigh home, said similar prayers and shed similar tears as parts of her roof blew away.

The two women had similar losses: Smith's rented mobile home is in tatters and Zuvic's house is unlivable for now.

In the storm's aftermath, however, their experiences diverged.

Zuvic was on the phone with her insurance agent within an hour of being pulled from her home and is set up for a rental until repairs on her house can be finished in several months.

Smith lost almost everything, including $300 in groceries bought with the disability check from her fiance, the sole breadwinner in their home.

Smith has to depend on the trailer park's landlord, who lost nearly all his income with the park's destruction, to repair or rebuild her home. She wonders if her family will end up living in a tent beside her wrecked home.

Saturday's tornadoes in North Carolina struck one of the state's richest counties and a few of its poorest, leaving well-to-do professionals in the capital city and poor tobacco farmers down east scrambling for their lives.

But days after the common experience, their lives again bear few similarities. Those with insurance and money are ready to rebound. And the people who were barely scraping by to begin with say they have no place to stay, no income and no easy future.

In Bertie County, where nearly a quarter of residents are below the poverty level, Johnny Mizelle fled from the storm and watched from his pickup's rear view mirror as nearly everything he owned was blown away. The few things of value left behind, like the motor to his fishing boat, were picked over by looters just hours after the storm passed.

Mizelle is living with relatives for now, but even those whose homes were spared from the tornado were walloped by the storm. Debris tossed about by the swirling winds is strewn across the family's fields, making it impossible to plant the corn that must go in the ground this week and casting doubt on the tobacco crop that needs to be sown next week. Mizelle's family can't go a year without the money from the farm.

"It's going to take forever to clean them up," Mizelle said. "Where do you begin?"

'Don't have a thing'
About 30 miles south of Raleigh, residents of the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park in Dunn face a similar decision. The county sits at the crossroads of Interstates 95 and 40, and companies once were eager to open warehouses nearby. But the economic downturn struck hard in surrounding Harnett County, sending the unemployment rate in February to 10.8 percent.

Terry Burgess lived with her husband in a trailer damaged in Saturday's tornado. The storm killed one of their neighbors and destroyed more than half the homes.

Terry Burgess wipes away a tear as she sits in the doorway of her damaged home at a mobile home community in Dunn, N.C., Tuesday, April 19, 2011, after a tornado ripped through the area Saturday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)Chuck Burton / AP

Burgess' family can stay with relatives for a little while. But she can't find work and the $1,200 a month from her husband's disability barely covered their bills before the storm.

"Nobody in this place can afford to just move. We're all in the same position — and now we're starting from the beginning. We don't have a thing," she said.

The tornadoes claimed at least their 24th victim on Wednesday, as Colerain resident Mary Williams died from her injuries. She was in a Bertie County group home where two others died in Saturday's storm. Bertie County suffered half of the state's reported deaths from the tornadoes.

Gov. Beverly Perdue on Wednesday thanked the White House for declaring 18 counties disaster areas so they can get federal aid. Officials are still tallying the damage, but the latest figures show nearly 6,200 homes damaged and about 440 destroyed across North Carolina.

About 5,000 of the damaged homes were in Raleigh, including Zuvic's house on the south side of the city near storm-ravaged Shaw University. But any time Zuvic finds herself inconvenienced, the account manager for a software firm tries to remember how lucky she is.

The tornado blocked her in her home and she had to be pulled from a window. She tried to call 911, but the line was busy, so she called her boyfriend instead. After the two secured her house with a tarp, her next call was to her insurance company, which by Tuesday agreed to pay for a temporary place as well as repairs to her home and car, which was crumpled by falling debris.

"They've been very nice and helpful. They told me we owe you a house just like the one you had," Zuvic said. "It's frustrating that it is going to be four months, but I'm counting my blessings too."

'On my own'
Even in Wake County, where the median household income is more than $63,000, plenty of people face uncertain futures. Not far from Zuvic's house, Helen Macklin, 63, lost the roof to her apartment in the storm. Each day since, with nowhere else to go, she has sat in her motorized wheelchair on a sidewalk outside the apartment, arriving at 7 a.m. and leaving when darkness falls to spend the night with any friend who will let her stay.

Macklin's daughter would likely take her in, but her pets bother Macklin's breathing problems. She doesn't want to go to a shelter because she has so many aliments.

"At night, I go place to place, staying with friends, home to home," she said. "You wear your welcome out in somebody's home. I've got find somewhere. In the meantime, I guess I'm on my own."

In Bertie County, people are glad to be alive, even in dire circumstances. When Smith starts fretting about where she will live when the Red Cross hotel vouchers run out, the stay-at-home mom tells herself that the Lord delivered her safely through the storm as she lay atop her three children in that tiny closet and her fiance strained to hold the closet door shut as the tornado battered their home.

"Well, we'll just have to put our tent up here and try to survive the best way that we can," she said. "It's all good. We can do it."


Weiss reported from Dunn. Martha Waggoner in Raleigh and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.