Local News

Residents Hit By Storm, Survey Damage

Posted Updated

RALEIGH — April 16, 1996 - 3:34 p.m. EDTFrom Staff and Wire Reports

Residents in eastern Wake County began cleaning up the damage from two tornadoes and high winds that injured at least 20 people and destroyed as many as 60 mobile homes.

The most extensive damage and most of the injuries were reported Monday at the Westside Trailer Park in Zebulon, about 20 miles east of Raleigh.

As many as 20 people were taken to area hospitals from the mobile home park, said sheriff's deputy C.E. Lambert. None of the injuries was serious.

``There were a lot of walking wounded,'' Lambert said.

While most residents were caught in their homes, some were trapped inside cars when the tornado struck. Afterward, when there were reports of two more funnel clouds approaching, emergency personnel encouraged residents to get into a nearby ditch rather than go back inside cars and mobile homes.

The other tornadoes did not strike the trailer park and were never confirmed.

Park manager Vickie Marshburn said residents of Westside might not be able to get back into the park Tuesday. When they do return, they will come back to widespread damage. Marshburn estimates that of the 79 homes in the park, 60 of them are destroyed -- a number much higher than originally reported.

One of the tornadoes destroyed a classroom building at Zebulon Middle School, forcing officials to close the school Tuesday.

"Four hours earlier it would have been a catastrophe," said Principal Ken Branch. "That building holds 260 kids. That is our sixth grade."

The school, shown at right, was built in 1923, but additions had been built on as recently as 1989. Some of them were spared damage, but with the current shortage of school space due to rapid growth in Wake County, officials say the loss of space can create a real hardship.

State and county emergency management officials began the process of assessing the destruction Tuesday. Hardest hit was Wake County, where officials surveyed damage from a National Guard helicopter this morning.

The tornadoes hit Zebulon around 6 p.m., just as many people were sitting down to dinner. It was not immediately clear how many tornadoes moved through the area, Phil Badgett of the National Weather Service said today.

Video from WRAL-TV News photojournalist Mark Copeland clearly showed a funnel cloud picking up debris along U.S. 64 east of Zebulon.

A third of the town's 3,200 residents had no power or water overnight. Access to some damaged areas of the town was restricted to residents and business owners.

``We are asking people not to come to Zebulon unless they absolutely have to,'' said Frank Cope of the Wake County Department of Public Safety.

CP&L said at least 20 percent of its customers in Zebulon were still without power Tuesday morning and Zebulon residents were being asked to conserve water.

Courtesy Ford, a car dealership, also sustained heavy damage, with the storm tossing cars around the lot.

The storms also caused damage in Wendell. Ed High said a tornado picked up his mobile home and dumped it on his three cars, but he's just happy to be alive. High was in the trailer when the storm hit.

"The whole trailer just flipped over," High told WRAL-TV5 reporter Mark Roberts. "I was praying."

Another Wendell resident said he was amazed by the storm's power.

"They (trees) just snapped like toothpicks," he said. "It was unbelievable.

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