RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Three days of violent storms and tornadoes across the southern United States killed at least 43 people, wrecked hundreds of buildings and downed power lines, officials said on Sunday.
North Carolina accounted for the bulk of casualties and property losses, with 22 people killed and more than 80 others injured in a string of tornadoes that ripped through the state Saturday night.
Houses were flattened, cars and trucks tossed like matchsticks and planes blown off the tarmac at a local airport. Uprooted trees, poles and debris snapped power lines, cutting electricity to more than 200,000 people in North Carolina.
A store manager for home improvement chain Lowe’s in Sanford, North Carolina, was credited for saving customers and staff when she directed them to the back of the store just before a tornado peeled its roof off, news media reported.
“I’ve seen a lot of damage in North Carolina over the years, but this is the most catastrophic I have ever seen. The destruction is massive,” North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue told CBS News after touring the worst hit areas of the state.
“We have 23 counties that are really really hurt badly, lots of tremendous property damage, schools lost, infrastructure damage,” said Perdue. She said President Barack Obama had pledged “whatever it takes to rebuild North Carolina.”
Tornadoes moved through 13 other states, including Virginia, where officials reported four deaths and unconfirmed reports of three more. Virginia emergency officials said that 177 structures were damaged by the severe weather.
Dominion Virginia Power said the two nuclear reactors at its Surry Power Station in southeastern Virginia shut down automatically on Saturday when an apparent tornado touched down and cut off an electrical feed to the station.
Backup generators operated normally and both units “are in safe and stable condition,” the utility said in a statement.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah said on Sunday no radiation was released during the storm and shutdown. “Everything worked the way it should,” he said.
AccuWeather.com meteorologist Andy Mussoline said the storms appeared to be the deadliest in the United States since February 2008, when 57 people died in two days from tornadoes in the South and Ohio Valley.
The storms began in Oklahoma on Thursday, moved through the South and hit the East Coast by Saturday. A total of 241 tornadoes were reported and 50 confirmed. The death toll included seven people in Alabama, seven in Arkansas, two in Oklahoma and one in Mississippi.
Governors in North Carolina and Virginia declared a state of emergency as authorities scrambled with rescue and cleanup operations.
In North Carolina, high winds destroyed more than 130 homes and damaged more than 700, the governor’s office said.
“We’re used to hurricanes. We’re used to tornadoes. We’re used to floods. But we’re not used to losing 11 of our citizens,” said Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb. The sprawling, rural area in northeastern North Carolina, was the hardest hit.
“The thing about this storm that is different than a typical tornado was the width,” Lamb said. “It wasn’t just 100 or 200 yards wide, but a half-mile wide and it stayed on the ground for six miles or so.”
Progress Energy PGN.N, the main utility in eastern North Carolina, said 220,000 customers were without electricity at the peak of the storm, with 78,000 homes and utilities still without power on Sunday morning.
The storm snapped hundreds of power poles and 30 transmission structures were damaged, company spokesman Mike Hughes said. In some areas, tornadoes swept away poles and wires and dropped them elsewhere.
“There are some parts where a tornado took the utility structure away and we cannot find it,” Hughes said.
The storms let up on Sunday, but Mussoline said more tornadoes could threaten the southern plains and Ohio Valley in the coming week, particularly on Tuesday. (Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Wendell Marsh and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao and Jackie Frank)