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Hard future for N.C. victims

Twisters left poor with little hope of replacing homes

A tornado that hit Saturday devastated some homes in northeast Raleigh, N.C., and left others unscathed. A tornado that hit Saturday devastated some homes in northeast Raleigh, N.C., and left others unscathed. (Chris Steward/The News & Observer via Associated Press)
By Brock Vergakis and Mitch Weiss
Associated Press / April 21, 2011

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ASKEWVILLE, N.C. — Kimberly Smith cried and prayed with her children as they huddled inside her trailer when a weekend tornado roared through eastern North Carolina. About 130 miles away and three hours earlier, Cecilia Zuvic cowered in the bathroom of her two-story Raleigh home, said similar prayers and shed similar tears as parts of her roof blew away.

The two women had similar losses: Smith’s rented mobile home is in tatters and Zuvic’s house is unlivable for now.

In the storm’s aftermath, however, their experiences diverged.

Zuvic was on the phone with her insurance agent within an hour of being pulled from her home and is set up for a rental until repairs on her house can be finished in several months.

Smith lost almost everything, including $300 in groceries bought with the disability check from her fiance, the sole breadwinner in their home.

Smith has to depend on the trailer park’s landlord, who lost nearly all his income with the park’s destruction, to repair or rebuild her home. She wonders if her family will end up living in a tent beside her wrecked home.

Saturday’s tornadoes in North Carolina struck one of the state’s richest counties and a few of its poorest, leaving well-to-do professionals in the capital city and poor tobacco farmers down east scrambling for their lives.

But days after the common experience, their lives again bear few similarities. Those with insurance and money are ready to rebound. And the people who were barely scraping by to begin with say they have no place to stay, no income, and no easy future.

In Bertie County, where nearly a quarter of residents are below the poverty level, Johnny Mizelle fled from the storm and watched from his pickup truck’s rear view mirror as nearly everything he owned was blown away. The few things of value left behind, like the motor to his fishing boat, were picked over by looters just hours after the storm passed.

Mizelle is living with relatives, but even those whose homes were spared from the tornado were walloped by the storm. Debris tossed about by the swirling winds is strewn across the family’s fields, making it impossible to plant the corn that must go in the ground this week and casting doubt on the tobacco crop that needs to be sown next week.

About 30 miles south of Raleigh, residents of the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park in Dunn face a similar decision. The county sits at the crossroads of Interstates 95 and 40, and companies once were eager to open warehouses nearby. But the economic downturn struck hard in surrounding Harnett County, sending the unemployment rate in February to 10.8 percent.

Terry Burgess lived with her husband in a trailer damaged in Saturday’s tornado. The storm killed one of their neighbors and destroyed more than half the homes.

Burgess’s family can stay with relatives for a little while. But she can’t find work and the $1,200 a month from her husband’s disability barely covered their bills before the storm.

The tornadoes claimed at least their 24th victim yesterday, as Colerain resident Mary Williams died from her injuries. She was in a Bertie County group home where two others died in Saturday’s storm. Bertie County suffered half of the state’s reported deaths from the tornadoes.

Governor Beverly Perdue thanked the White House yesterday for declaring 18 counties disaster areas so they can get federal aid. Officials are still tallying the damage, but the latest figures show nearly 6,200 homes damaged and about 440 destroyed across North Carolina.

About 5,000 of the damaged homes were in Raleigh, including Zuvic’s house. But any time Zuvic finds herself inconvenienced, the account manager for a software firm tries to remember how lucky she is.

The tornado blocked her in her home and she had to be pulled from a window. She tried to call 911, but the line was busy, so she called her boyfriend instead. After the two secured her house with a tarp, her next call was to her insurance company, which by Tuesday agreed to pay for a temporary place as well as repairs to her home and car, which was crumpled by falling debris.

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