The National Weather Service reported preliminary indications that a tornado that cut a three-mile path through Greensboro clocked in as a category EF2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning the funnel was packing winds estimated between 111 and 135 mph.
The storm knocked vehicles off Interstate 40 and tossed Federal Express cargo planes about at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's total chaos," said Buddy Jenkins, one of a number of Piedmont Triad Farmers Market vendors who lost thousands of dollars in produce and plants to the storm.
A second tornado touched down in Clemmons, in Forsyth County, damaging or demolishing nearly 100 homes with gusts that reached 140 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
"On one hand, (it's) depressing, but one the other hand, we're just so lucky that nobody was killed," storm victim Barbara Smith said.
Dave Parker's daughter and two grandsons barely escaped injury, hiding in a closet under a staircase as the family's house was destroyed.
"All of a sudden, it just got quiet, and she said she had a feeling she was in trouble," Parker said. "Just as she got in (the closet), the whole house departed. Two-thirds of the house is just gone, and the other third fell on top of them."
Neighbors pulled the mother and children from the rubble, and the community then pulled together to start repairing the less-damaged homes.
Gov. Mike Easley sent damage assessment teams to Guilford, Forsyth and Davie counties. Local officials also contacted the federal government in Washington to request financial assistance.
The tornadoes were part of a storm system that swept through the Southeast and the mid-Atlantic states late Thursday and into early Friday.
WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said a three-dimensional radar image of the storm that hit Clemmons showed an updraft that extended almost 40,000 feet up into the center of the storm.
"Any system that has an updraft that strong is capable of producing severe weather – at the very least, damaging straight-line winds," Fishel said.
In Greensboro, the hardest-hit area – bordered by I-40, Sandy Ridge Road, West Market Street and Thatcher Road – remained off-limits to residents Friday so Duke Power crews could restore electricity. Crews were expected to get power back to the area by late Friday night, police said.
About 100 merchants in the area were allowed to return briefly to secure their businesses, police said.
Greensboro Assistant Fire Chief Davis Douglas said the area “dodged a bullet,” despite the fatality, because the storm could have hit a high-density residential area.
“I thought we were going to come back to something much worse than what we have out there,” he said.
The man killed in the storm was in a small truck in a parking lot near Triad Park west of Greensboro, according to Alan Perdue, Emergency Services director for Guilford County.
Donald Ray Needham, 51, of Jackson Springs, was making a delivery on West Market Street when winds winds flipped his truck, authorities said.
Two other people were taken to a hospital with injuries that were not considered life threatening, and a third person was treated at the scene and released, Perdue said.
Emergency officials spent more than four hours Friday checking buildings for structural damage. Yellow tape left on buildings meant that officials deemed them unsafe to be occupied.
City crews have cleared the streets in the area of debris, and water and sewer lines were operating normally, officials said.