ASKEWVILLE, N.C. – A tornado-spewing storm system that killed at least 45 people across half the country unleashed its worst fury on North Carolina, where residents in the capital city and rural hamlets alike mourned the dead, marveled at their survival and began to clean up devastated neighborhoods Sunday.
Observers reported more than 60 tornadoes across North Carolina on Saturday, but most of the state’s 21 confirmed deaths occurred in two rural counties. A thunderstorm spawned a tornado that killed four people in southeastern Bladen County, then kept dropping tornadoes as it hopscotched more than 150 miles, eventually moving into Bertie County and killing 11 more.
Some homes were swept from their foundations, others were demolished and cars flipped on tiny rural roads between Askewville and Colerain, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said. At least three of those who died were from the same family, he said.
The winds ripped to shreds the doublewide mobile home in Askewville where Justin Dunlow had sought shelter for his 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and himself. The 23-year-old roofer, whose own mobile home nearby also was destroyed, lay on both children as the storm did its worst.
“I just started praying, and the wall fell on top of us and that’s what kept us there,” he said. “I can replace the house, but I can’t replace my babies. And that’s what I thought about. I’m alive. My babies are alive.”
Bertie County resident Richard Watford said he found the body of his neighbor face-down on the ground, in the spot where the man’s house had been. Some wooden planks provided the only sign that a house had even been there.
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.
Saturday was North Carolina’s deadliest day for tornadoes since 1984, when 22 twisters killed 42 people and injured hundreds. The state emergency management agency said it had reports of 23 fatalities from Saturday’s storms, but local officials confirmed only 21 deaths with The Associated Press.
The conditions that allowed for Saturday’s storms will 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, which allows air to rise and fall quickly, creating winds of hurricane strength or greater. There was also plenty of moisture, which acts as fuel for the violent storms, and it had shear winds at different heights moving in different directions, creating the spin needed to create tornadoes, Sharp said.
In Virginia, local emergency officials reported seven storm-related deaths, said state emergency management spokesman Bob Spieldenner.
Spieldenner said the state medical examiner’s office confirmed one person died in Gloucester, where a tornado hit; two died in flash flooding in Waynesboro; and one person died in Wythe County when a tree fell on a mobile home. Officials were still investigating a death in Page County and two more reported in Gloucester.
Many of the deaths occurred in mobile homes. Census data from 2007, the latest available, estimates 14.5 percent of homes in North Carolina are mobile homes, the seventh highest percentage in the nation and well over the U.S. average of 6.7 percent.