Raleigh, N.C. — Homes and businesses were badly damaged and at least five people were confirmed dead Saturday after a severe storm system whipped across North Carolina, bringing flash floods, hail and reports of tornadoes from the western hills to the streets of Raleigh.
As emergency crews scrambled across the state to clear trees from roads and survey damage, no immediate toll on injuries was available, but the prospects were grim for areas badly hit.
By late Saturday evening, fatalities were confirmed in Harnett and Wake counties, including three people killed at Stony Brook North mobile home park in Raleigh, authorities there said.
Gov. Bev Perdue said Saturday night that at least 20 counties had reported significant damage from tornadoes and that there were at least 62 unconfirmed reports of tornadoes across the state.
"Scores of homes have been damaged, some totally destroyed," Perdue said. "Businesses were hurt badly or destroyed, and the best think all of us can begin to think about is how we can reach out and help our neighbors."
Perdue confirmed there were fatalities across the state but said emergency officials weren't prepared to say how many until families were notified and people accounted for.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive in North Carolina Sunday, she said, to begin damage assessments.
Perdue declared a state of emergency in North Carolina, as did officials in several counties, including Cumberland, Halifax and Wake. Curfews were in effect as of 9 p.m. for storm-damaged areas in Fayetteville, Holly Springs and Roanoke Rapids.
In Sanford, a Lowe's Home Improvement Center was smashed by the storm, according to police and witnesses.
"The Lowe's Home Improvement has been flattened," said Monica Elliott, who works at the nearby Brick City Grill. "It's totally destroyed."
Lowe's spokeswoman Julie Yenichek said none of the store's employees were injured and she thinks all of the customers were safe. Yenichek said the store manager had been outside and saw the storm coming.
"And he literally pushed everybody to the back of the store," she said. The back of the store, with no windows, was a relatively secure makeshift shelter, while most of the damage was to the front of the building.
The storm cut a mile-wide swath through Raleigh, snapping some trees in half and ripping others from the ground.
Emergency crews, rescue workers and firefighters had surrounded a section of the Stony Brook North mobile home park piled high with trees and the remnants of dwellings.
Guillermo Villela, 34, returned home to the park Saturday to find trailers pushed to the side of the road, damaged by trees and blown by the wind. He saw two young children trapped underneath large trees, and he fears the children are dead.
"I see a lot of disaster. It's bad," Villela said.
Near downtown Raleigh, a tornado blew through South Saunders Street, snapping power lines and downing utility poles.
Other areas with severe damage include neighborhoods surrounding Shaw University; the area of Buffaloe Road and New Hope Road; and Yonkers Road area.
The National Weather Service had reports of tornadoes Saturday in Lee, Alamance and Person counties and near Raleigh. Much of the central part of the state was under a tornado warning for much of the day.
There were further reports of storm damage in Lee, Union, Caswell, Rowan, Johnston, Wayne, Guilford and Alamance counties, according to state public safety department spokeswoman Julia Jarema.
Storm shelters opened in various communities, including Cumberland, Harnett, Johnston, Wake, Lee and Bladen counties.
Accompanying the damage were power outages that affected thousands of customers, as high winds and falling trees brought down lines across both North and South Carolina.
At one point, more than 200,000 customers of Progress and Duke Energy in the Carolinas were without power.
The hardest hit counties were Lee, Harnett and Wake, where nearly 33,000 were without electricity Saturday evening, according to Progress Energy.
Progress Energy spokesman Scott Sutton urged people to stay far away from downed power lines and to report them to the utility immediately.