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Storms’ fury took N.C. by surprise

Tornadoes left 21 dead, hundreds of homes destroyed

Melissa Jernigan sorted through the remains of her home in Askewville, N.C., one of the hardest-hit areas in the state. Melissa Jernigan sorted through the remains of her home in Askewville, N.C., one of the hardest-hit areas in the state. (Sara D. Davis/ Getty Images)
By Brock Vergakis
Associated Press / April 19, 2011

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COLERAIN, N.C. — They aren’t used to tornadoes in North Carolina, let alone 60 of them.

When a deadly storm system that had already unleashed twisters across the South was about to arrive, residents were out doing yard work, making plans for the Easter holiday, or just gazing at the darkening skies.

Over four hours on Saturday night, they learned that a hurricane is not the only force of nature that can strike their state.

“The sky looks funny,’’ Jean Burkett recalled saying, as she looked out of her window around dinner time. Then she called out to her husband, Richard. “Honey, come here,’’ she said. “You’ve never seen this before.’’

Staring out her window, she saw a large tornado approaching her neighborhood in hardest-hit Bertie County. It would largely leave her home untouched, but demolished nearby houses and killed 11 people, Burkett’s longtime friend among them.

Officials said at least 21 people died across the state, more than 130 were seriously injured and more than 800 homes were destroyed or damaged. At least 45 died across the South.

The conditions that created the deadly weather systems may appear once or twice a year in the tornado-prone Great Plains, but almost never in North Carolina.

“Saturday’s event will go down in history in North Carolina,’’ said Matthew Parker, associate professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.

Governor Beverly Perdue, like governors in three other Southern states, declared a state of emergency. Yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that it had 12 teams in North Carolina, one in Alabama, and three in Mississippi.

From Thursday through Saturday, there were more than 200 preliminary reports of funnel clouds across the country. Other states affected included Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.

The National Weather Service warned that parts of the Midwest should prepare for more severe weather today, predicting possible strong tornados and large storms in the Ozarks and the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.

Initial reports said 60 tornadoes were spawned by the storm system in North Carolina. The worst of it was between roughly 2:53 p.m. Saturday, when the first fatal twister touched down on the edge of Moore County in the central part of the state, and 6:55 p.m., when a tornado hit Bertie.

The first moved rapidly into a busy shopping and industrial area of Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh. It ripped the roof off a tractor supply store and flattened the front of a Lowe’s home improvement store, but no one was killed.

The storm continued losing and gaining strength as it cut a path to the northeast, entering Raleigh 10 minutes before 4 p.m.

Again, luck or planning kept people safe.

The twister whipped through crowded neighborhoods, felling trees, smashing crypts in a cemetery, and causing so much damage to Shaw University that the school canceled the remaining two weeks of its spring semester.

When the storm hit a trailer park about five miles north of downtown, it killed several people. Cousins Daniel Nino, 9, and Osvaldo Coronado, 8, died along with Osvaldo’s 3-year-old brother, Kevin, when a tree fell on a mobile home where they were huddled together.

Larry Tanner had heard the warnings on TV. His son, a volunteer firefighter, came home to alert him that a tornado had touched down nearby.

Tanner walked outside and spotted a funnel cloud headed toward the house. Tanner was knocked on his back and watched as the winds ripped the roof off the house.

In 30 seconds, it was over.

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