Raleigh, N.C. A brutal spring storm raged across North Carolina on Saturday, flattening businesses, flipping cars and destroying homes, leaving at least four dead from a system already blamed for killing 17 people in four states.
The death toll was likely to rise. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said there were fatalities in four counties but would not confirm an exact number, saying officials wanted to wait until this morning.
Earlier, officials in Raleigh said more than one person died in the capital city in Wake County, one of the counties Perdue mentioned. Urban search and rescue teams were also looking for residents who might be trapped in damaged buildings.
Perdue said the 62 tornadoes were the most since March 1984, when a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas, killing 57 people — 42 in North Carolina — and injuring hundreds.
This year’s spring storm was easily the deadliest of the season, but there were stories of survival, too.
In South Carolina, a church with six people inside collapsed after it was hit by a tornado, but somehow no one was injured. And in Sanford, N.C., the manager of a Lowe’s hardware store was credited with saving more than 100 workers and employees by ushering them to the back of the store, which acted as a makeshift shelter as the weather rolled in.
The storms began in Oklahoma on Thursday, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Seven people each were killed in Arkansas and Alabama, which was hit a day earlier. A father, his son and his daughter were killed near Montgomery; a mother and her two teenage sons died in a mobile home in the southwest part of the state, and the storm claimed the life of an elderly man whose trailer was tossed nearly a quarter of a mile across a state highway.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley visited some of the devastated areas and declared the entire state a disaster.
Things looked similar in North Carolina. Roofs were ripped off stores, trees were plucked out of the ground and “scores” of homes were damaged, emergency management director Doug Hoell said.
Police in Raleigh evacuated residents at a mobile park, and emergency crews went door-to-door looking for people injured or trapped by the storm that flipped mobile homes from one side of the street to the other.
Guillermo Villela, 34, said he saw two young children at the park trapped under fallen trees.
“I see a lot of disaster. It’s bad,” Villela said.
In the town of Sanford in central North Carolina, what could have been a deadly catastrophe was averted when a Lowe’s manager saw the approaching storm. The front of Lowe’s was flattened by the storm, with cars in the parking lot tossed around and flipped on their roofs.
“It was really just a bad scene,” said Jeff Blocker, Lowe’s regional vice president for eastern North Carolina. “You’re just amazed that no one was injured.”
Blocker credits his store manager and the other 40 to 50 employees in the store at the time with getting the as many as 70 customers safely to the rear.