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Searches Continue After Storms Devastate The South

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Storms ripped across the South over the past few days. Tornadoes and downed trees killed dozens of people. Now, as the weather improves, rescuers and residents are taking stock of what happened as the cleanup continues.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with the weekend of devastating weather across the South. Tornados and flooding blasted through a half a dozen states killing more than 40 people. The brunt of the storm hit North Carolina. Their search and rescue crews are sifting through the rubble. In a moment, we'll hear from one young man who had his three-month-old cousin ripped from his hands by a tornado and, believe it or not, his story has a happy ending.

But first, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on efforts to measure the extent of the damage and to pick up the pieces.

KATHY LOHR: One North Carolina resident said it looked like the "Wizard of Oz" as tornados ripped up trees, blew up homes and lifted pigs into the sky.

Governor Bev Perdue towards several of the hardest hit areas today, and she says she reached out to President Obama, who sent in federal assessment teams within 20 hours after the storm hit.

Governor BEV PERDUE (Democrat, North Carolina): They are active across North Carolina today and they will be today, tonight, tomorrow. And then we hope by Thursday we'll know the first rough estimates on loss of life and property both to individuals and to businesses.

LOHR: The governor declared a state of emergency after tornados shattered homes and businesses, uprooted trees and whipped down power lines. One tornado stayed on the ground for 62 miles from Sanford to Raleigh in Wake County. Commission chair Paul Coble told reporters this afternoon some of the damage is not readily apparent until you take a second look.

Mr. PAUL COBLE (Chair, Wake County Board of Commissioners): If you stand on the outside of the fire station, it looks like there's nothing really wrong with it. But you walk inside and you look up and the roof has come apart. And you can look up and you see that all the struts and structure has been torn up, all the wiring. It really does look like the tornado just stopped, reached out, picked the roof up and then slammed it right back down on top of the building. It's incredible.

LOHR: Coble says damage estimates may be as high as $100 million in this county alone. This type of storm is not unusual during the springtime, but it was the deadliest storm to batter North Carolina since 1984. There are reports of more than 60 tornados hitting the state Saturday. Greg Carbin with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says some funnel clouds were likely counted more than once.

Mr. GREG CARBIN (Warning Coordination Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Some of them were probably on the ground for 50 miles or so. You may end up with 40 reports along that track and those are now being counted as preliminary tornado reports. But in the end result, it's going to be one tornado. So the numbers will come down again. That's still going to be quite a few tornados in one day for eastern North Carolina.

LOHR: The storm system walloped a huge swath of the South. At least 17 people died in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arkansas as a direct result of the tornadoes. According to the National Weather Service, cleanup is underway throughout those states. At least 21 people died in North Carolina alone. And more than 130 were seriously injured.

Carbin says many of the fatalities occurred in trailers, despite advanced warning that this was a particularly dangerous storm. It turns out, more than 14 percent of North Carolina's homes are trailers, which just can't stand up to these strong winds.

Mr. CARBIN: And it is unusual to see the large toll that we saw, especially during the daylight hours. It's a little sobering. And we have to, you know, try to reach as many people as we can with the word that danger is on the way. But sometimes people are just not in the position to receive that information.

LOHR: There's no indication that this will be a particularly active season based on this one mega storm. But officials say another severe storm system is developing and expected to hit the Midwest later this week.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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