Raleigh, N.C. — A strong jet stream lended energy to a fast-moving storm system, creating the perfect environment to prompt tornadoes and severe thunderstorms to pummel central North Carolina Saturday afternoon and evening, WRAL meteorologist Mike Maze said.
Tornado warnings cover Pitt, Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick and Duplin counties until 7:45 p.m.
Doug Hoell, director of State Emergency Management, said he is working with the governor's office to declare a state of emergency. Cumberland County and the city of Fayetteville already declared states of emergency.
One person was killed in the storm in Cumberland County and another in Dunn in Johnston County, authorities said. WRAL News is working to get more information.
More than 200,000 Progress Energy customers were without power as of 7 p.m., a spokesman for the utility said. He said downed power lines are getting tangled in trees and roofs, hindering crews from restoring power to affected customers. Wake, Johnston and Cumberland counties had the highest numbers of outages.
Scott Sutton, spokesman for Progress Energy, urged people to stay far away from downed power lines and to report them to the utility immediately.
The tornado threat moved out of the WRAL viewing area to the northeast at 50 mph around 6:30 p.m. after the third tornado warning was issued for the Goldsboro area and then storms headed toward Scotland Neck and Greenville.
The threat of severe weather has diminished, especially in the west – in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.
A tornado watch for the area extends until 9 p.m., which means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop. The storms could move as quickly as 55 mph, so people should be prepared to take shelter quickly.
"These are dangerous tornadoes. Seek shelter immediately," Maze said.
A Lowe's home improvement store on Horner Boulevard in Sanford was demolished by a tornado that passed through Lee County earlier Saturday. Employees described seeing a "wall of churning debris and wind" charging toward the store and were able to herd customers to the back of the store. No one was seriously injured, according to witnesses.
Several homes also sustained heavy damage in the St. Andrew's neighborhood of Sanford, viewers reported.
Tornadoes also touched ground in Raleigh, Holly Springs, Roxboro, Fayetteville, downtown Wilson and Roanoke Rapids, WRAL meteorologist Nate Johnson said.
In Roanoke Rapids, a tornado charged along 14th Street toward Guardian Care Nursing Home and Manning Elementary School. The school, the Sonic Drive-in and Forest Hill Shopping Center sustained significant damage, according to a town EMS spokesman.
In Person County, emergency crews rescued a family who had taken shelter in their basement and became trapped when a tree fell on their house. No one was injured.
In Fayetteville, a tornado ran through the Reilly Road corridor, causing damage to homes, trees and power lines. Authorities closed roads to make way for emergency crews near Ramsey Street, Andrews Road and McArthur Road.
In Raleigh, a home in the Cardinal Grove subdivision near Louisburg Road was completely leveled by a tornado, a viewer reported. Raleigh police are asking motorists to stay off the roads, so emergency crews can travel more easily.
Severe thunderstorms also struck the region as a squall line moved quickly across central North Carolina.
North Carolina is at extremely rare high risk of severe weather, including tornadoes, Saturday afternoon and evening, WRAL meteorologist Nate Johnson.
The state was at that stage of an alert in 1984 when tornadoes killed 42 people from Robeson County to Gates County.
The storms will die out quickly in the evening and early nighttime hours once the cold front passes through.
"Tomorrow, that will all be out of here, and we'll have a very nice finish to the weekend to turn things around," Moss said.
Sunday will boast sunny skies, lower humidity and pleasant temperatures reaching into the low 70s.