States Begin Cleanup After Punishing Tornadoes

fromWUNC

Three days of powerful storms peaked on Saturday, leaving a wake of destruction across the southern United States. More than 240 tornadoes had been reported since the storms began on Thursday. Dozens of people were killed including 22 in North Carolina.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Several southern states are still staggering under the damage this morning of powerful storms that roared across the region, leaving a trail of destruction. More than 240 tornadoes were reported in the region after the twisters began Thursday in Oklahoma.

KELLY: They spread eastward then, hitting Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, and then surging through the Carolinas and into Virginia. The twisters flattened buildings, overturned cars and downed power lines. More than 40 people were killed, about half of them in North Carolina, a state where tornadoes are relatively rare.

Governor BEVERLY PERDUE (Democrat, North Carolina): We're beginning to recover from what we believe is the most widespread tornadoes we've seen since the mid-'80s.

KELLY: That's North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, who declared a state of emergency.

MONTAGNE: Many residents across the state are homeless as a result of the storm. Schools are closed, including Shaw University in the capital, Raleigh. That's where North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge begins our coverage.

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LEONEDA INGE: Workers blow leaves and small sticks off the sidewalk in front of Shaw University. The entrance doesn't look too welcoming. Part of the iron fence is leaning, large trees are broken, and power lines are spread out in the street like spaghetti. Even the school's historic marker is on the ground.

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan spent Sunday touring some of the hardest hit areas of the state. Shaw University was on the list.

Senator KAY HAGAN (Democrat, North Carolina): Well, I hate meeting again under these circumstances.

Ms. IRMA MCCLAURIN (President, Shaw University): I know. I know. (Unintelligible) We got lucky though.

INGE: That's Hagan with Shaw president Irma McClaurin. There were no major injuries at the historically black university. But the institution took a direct hit from the storm and McClaurin says there's no way to repair shattered dormitories, the cafeteria and student center this semester. So they're closing early.

Ms. MCCLAURIN: Branches are still hanging off and we won't know how long those things will be cleaned up. So we're doing everything we can to work with the students to make sure that they get home safely.

INGE: Exams are suspended and the school's 2,700 students will be graded on what they have completed to date.

Athena Curry is a freshman at Shaw and says she is still pretty shaken.

Ms. ATHENA CURRY: We were in the hallway. We were relaxing and everything like that. And then first the lights cut off. And once the lights cut off, we heard this big boom. And what the boom was all the glass breaking. So we're in the hallway, we're panicking.

INGE: Stories of panic and fright are being told across more than 20 counties in North Carolina that were in the path of at least 62 tornado touchdowns. Governor Beverly Perdue spent Sunday visiting devastated communities.

Gov. PERDUE: I am not shocked at all, but I was truly - I was truly sad, almost to the point of being tearful at times, to talk to the people.

INGE: In North Raleigh, residents of a mobile home park are mourning the deaths of three small children killed when a tree fell on their home. Thousands of people are on the ground trying to restore power, clean up hotwires, and remove debris. FEMA is here and the Obamas have called.

Perdue is back on the road today, traveling to devastated areas. She'll visit Bertie County. Reports put the death toll there at 11 people, several from the same family. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge.

MONTAGNE: Similar cleanup efforts are underway across the South. Three people were killed in the small town of Boone's Chapel, Alabama, where winds 140 miles per hour tore apart the Baptist church.

Pastor Mike Johnson says volunteers have been busy doing what they can.

Pastor MIKE JOHNSON (Boone's Chapel Baptist Church): Although there's sadness at the loss of life, obviously at the same there's an optimistic feel, and I guess the people are actually pulling together. We've had so many people removing debris that we've almost cleaned up the debris site.

MONTAGNE: Back in North Carolina, Governor Beverly Perdue made a similar point, saying communities will have to rely on one another as they rebuild.

Gov. PERDUE: The state and the counties that have been touched have been hurt badly or destroyed. And the best thing that all of us can begin to think about other than our prayers, is how we can reach out and help our neighbors.

MONTAGNE: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending teams to several of the states hit by the storms.

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