Massive cleanup after deadly storms in US South

Associated Press
June White searches through what is left of Moore's Family Care Home in Colerain, N.C., Monday, April 18, 2011 after a tornado ripped through the area Saturday.  (AP Photo/Jim R. Bounds)
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Shards of glass from old bottles and furniture smashed by a tornado that tore through town littered the concrete floor of Rhonda Carter's antique store, shattering her plans to open an auction house in nearby Salemburg. A storage area in the back was flattened.

"I just had a feeling something bad was going to happen, and it did," Carter said of Saturday, when storms raged through Bonnetsville and other parts of North Carolina, killing at least 23 and damaging or destroying more than 800 homes. "Now I'm starting over."

From remote rural communities to the state's second-largest city, thousands of residents hit by the worst tornado outbreak in nearly 30 years were clearing away rubble and debris, repairing power lines and facing a recovery that will cost tens of millions of dollars.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster Tuesday for 18 counties in North Carolina after Gov. Beverly Perdue asked the president and to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for help, seeking low-interest loans for farmers and loans and grants to help others repair their homes and businesses.

The storms that chugged across the South last week killed at least 46 people in six states, but the worst devastation came over about four hours Saturday in North Carolina. Officials were still tallying the toll, with police in Raleigh announcing that a 6-month-old child who had been in the hospital ended up dying from her injuries.

"In the blink of an eye, so many people have been plunged into grief and crisis," said Preston Parrish, executive vice president of ministry at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which dispatched its disaster-response teams to four areas of the state.

One was Bertie County in the state's northeast corner, where the ministry also deployed volunteers just seven months ago, after floods devastated the county seat of Windsor and surrounding communities.

At least two tornadoes hit the county in rapid succession, one doing enough damage to kill 11 people. The twisters descended suddenly, with only about 15 minutes of warning.

"I saw it coming, we got in there, and as soon as we hit the door, boom, it hit," said Roy Lee, whose house was destroyed. "About three minutes max it was over."

When it was over, Lee's neighbor, 60-year-old Peggy Leary, was dead.

Gov. Perdue and other officials toured the damage Monday, pledging prompt support to rebuild. Charities, religious groups and emergency shelters sprang into action, offering their services to residents well-versed in disasters like hurricanes, who suddenly found themselves in the path of a very different type of storm.

Bertie County so far is the only county with a monetary damage estimate available. Property damage was at least $2.5 million, but that figure doesn't include infrastructure damage or the loss of crops. Bertie County produces tobacco, peanuts and soybeans, among other staples. Statewide, costs will likely be at least in the tens of millions because the weather raged through densely populated cities, trashing homes, businesses and public buildings.

Employees in Wake County, where Raleigh is located, estimated Monday that local costs will be around $65 million, county commission Chairman Paul Coble said, an estimate he expects to rise.

More than a quarter-million people lost power during the storm, but by late Monday that had dropped to a few thousand. The storm not only brought down power lines, but crews responding to outages found the storm had been so strong that some wires had simply vanished.

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Vergakis reported from Windsor.

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