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Easley Vows to Provide Assistance for Tornado Victims

Gov. Mike Easley got a firsthand look at the damage the day after a deadly tornado touched down in Riegelwood. He said 100 people are homeless and the state is working to find them new places to live.

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RIEGELWOOD, N.C. — Damage assessment teams were expected to visit this storm-ravaged community Friday where a powerful tornado killed eight people and sent a dozen others to hospitals.

The storm ripped through a cluster of trailers and an adjacent neighborhood of brick houses early Thursday morning in Riegelwood, where there are no tornado warning sirens. Officials closed the neighborhood overnight to prevent looting.

"It just looked like it put dynamite under the homes and ignited it," said resident Alton Edwards.

Last year, James Keith's building was destroyed by a fire. This year, he had rebuilt it to become a new garage and pool hall. He said he was planning to open it after Thanksgiving, but the tornado left the building in shambles.

"I plan to rebuild back probably. I may as well," he said.

Friday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Dole toured the destruction left by the tornado. She said she saw the images on television and wanted to help.

"I've been in touch with all of the folks like FEMA and NOAA and so on, and your heart just breaks for families that lost so much hear and we want to help out in every way we can," she said.

Gov. Mike Easley took an aerial tour of the damage Friday afternoon. He said 100 people are homeless and the state is working to find them new places to live.

Hours after the storm hit, Tomeka Jenkins was allowed to return to what was left of her home. The walls and roof were gone, and the exposed green carpeting was covered in debris -- broken bunk beds, an artificial Christmas tree, clothing, two teddy bears.

Across the street, an aluminum ladder hung from a tree.

"Other than what I have on, this is all I have, right in front of me," Jenkins said as crews worked to restore electricity to nearby homes spared by the storm.

Jenkins, 29, and her three children were among the storm's survivors. She said some of her neighbors were among those killed.

The tornado was part of a devastating line of thunderstorms that swept across the South on Wednesday and Thursday that left 12 people dead.

The eight people killed Thursday lived in Riegelwood, a small town on the Cape Fear River about 20 miles west of coastal Wilmington. Edwina Wilson said she lost two of her cousins.

"I couldn't believe it. I'm still in shock that both of them are gone. I can't believe they're both gone," she said.

Five people have been taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. Three people are listed in fair condition and two others are listed in serious condition. Four children have also been taken to hospitals.

Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten said authorities ended their search Thursday night and had accounted for everyone. However, crews plan to search a nearby pond Friday morning. Batten said two of the people killed were under 18 and several of the dead were found within 200 yards of where the tornado touched down.

"We assume they were literally consumed by the tornado," he said.

The storms began Wednesday, unleashing 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. Elsewhere 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, S.C. One crewman was aboard the 34-foot boat, which the Coast Guard escorted back to land.

When the tornado struck Riegelwood just after 6:30 a.m. Thursday, residents learned of the storm from radio and television reports.

"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 by the storm, and dozens planned to sleep at a shelter established at a nearby elementary school.

Household debris, including carpet and a laundry basket, was scattered along a road. A minivan lay in a ditch, and an open refrigerator with food inside had filled with rainwater.

County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs said several mobile homes were demolished, and there were "houses on top of cars and cars on top of houses."

The storm knocked out power to 45,000 customers in North Carolina, but the electricity was back on in most places by mid-afternoon.


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