Storm deaths reported in Raleigh, Sanford

staff writersApril 16, 2011 

Today's storms have caused "multiple fatalities and brought about extensive damage" in parts of Raleigh, including three deaths at Stony Brook North mobile home park, city officials confirmed this evening. Additional injuries were reported in Holly Springs. Wake, Lee, Johnston and Cumberland counties have declared states of emergency. And three people died in Bladen County.

In addition, state officials say a search and rescue team is looking for people reported missing tonight in Lee and Cumberland counties after fast-moving squalls and tornadoes left a trail of damaged buildings, downed power lines and uprooted trees throughout the Triangle and beyond.

"There is still a lot we don't know tonight as we begin recovering from the most severe, widespread tornadoes we have seen since the mid-1980s," Doug Hoell, director of the state's division of emergency management, said at a news conference tonight.

In a statement this evening, the city of Raleigh reported that the hardest hit areas here include: South Saunders Street near Western Boulevard and I-40; the Stony Brook mobile home park near Trawick Road, where deaths were reported; neighborhoods surrounding Shaw University; and the areas near Buffaloe and New Hope roads and Yonkers Road.

City authorities are asking residents to not call 911 except in an extreme emergency.

In addition, a truck driver was killed by a falling tree in Sanford, Mayor Cornelia Olive says.

Olive said city officials were preparing to ask Gov. Bev Perdue to declare a state of emergency in the city, where the Lowe's home improvement store was leveled. By 7 p.m., Olive said, there were several injuries reported in addition to the one death.

The city also will ask for help from the N.C. National Guard, she said. In the meantime, the Lee County Sheriff's Office will handle security around damaged commercial buildings, including Lowe's, Static Control and Tractor Supply Co.

Wake County emergency workers confirmed that a tornado crossed Wake starting before 4 p.m. The center of that storm cell also passed through Sanford, Holly Springs, downtown Raleigh and northeast Wake County, leaving a swath of damage. Storms also wrought havoc in other parts of the state.

As of 7:30 p.m., the National Weather Service had received nearly 75 tornado reports from 19 counties -- Alamance, Bladen, Chatham, Columbus, Cumberland, Greene, Halifax, Harnett, Johnston, Jones, Lee, Martin, Person, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Wake, Wayne and Wilson.

Hoell also said he was aware of fatalities across the state, but he could not confirm definite numbers or even locations. State officials said dozens "likely scores" of homes across the state have been destroyed, and even more damaged.

The Bladen Journal newspaper is reporting that Bladen County Coroner Hubert Kinlaw has confirmed two have died in the Ammon Community and one in Bladenboro as a result of a storm there.

Hoell confirmed that urban search and rescue teams from Guilford County have been deployed to help find folks trapped in damaged buildings in Lee and Cumberland counties.

He said it was difficult to determine which areas have been hit hardest, but he singled out Lee, Wake and Cumberland counties as places with a lot of damage.

Most other counties in the eastern half of the state had reported straight-line wind damage from thunderstorms.

Wind damage in Johnston County, which was hit hard by another part of the storm system, forced authorities to close Interstate 95 about 5:45 p.m.

On Saint Stephens Road just south of Micro, a tornado destroyed about four mobile homes, snapping trees and shredding billboards as it crossed Interstate 95. Several mobile homes and vehicles were flipped at Beulah in the Pines, said Tammy Amaon, a spokeswoman with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office.

Amaon also reported "lots of damage" to homes, mobile homes and power systems in the southern part of Johnston County, near Meadow, but she said she had received no reports of fatalities in the county.

The tornado flipped a truck on its side, blocking I-95 traffic in Johnston for hours.

Craig Johnson lived in one of the mobile homes the tornado destroyed. He said when he heard the tornado warning, he rushed home to take his wife and kids to safety at a nearby truck stop. One of his neighbors, though, stayed in his home through the storm and suffered minor injuries, Johnson said.

After the storm, the Johnson family was combing through the wreckage, taking the valuables out of the home to avoid theft. A window from the Johnson home was thrown about 50 yards away, its glass somehow unbroken.

Johnson said he'd spend Saturday night in his sister's nearby home, but after that, he wasn't sure. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I didn't have no insurance."

The tornado cut a narrow swath of damage through Saint Stephens Road and I-95. James Cole's mobile home a hundred yards away was untouched. He stayed in his home and said the storm passed through in an instant.

"God looked out for us," Cole said.

The town of Holly Springs is under a 9 p.m. curfew because of damage from the storm. Holly Springs police and firefighters asked that people stay off the roads, citing fallen power lines and other hazards.

Johnston County set up two shelters, at Micro Fire Department, 321 South U.S. 301 in Micro, and at South Johnston High School, 10381 U.S. Highway 301 South in Four Oaks.

In Cumberland County, Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne and county commissioner Kenneth Edge declared an emergency in the areas most devastated. That means a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Downed trees, flooded streets and building debris knocked out power and stopped traffic and created dangers throughout the Triangle.

Raleigh officials are warning residents that trees and power lines brought down by the storm can make traveling very hazardous. If a traffic signal is out due to power failure, treat the intersection as a four-way stop and proceed with caution, they advise. Always treat a downed power line as if it is energized and do not touch it.

Motorists are advised to treat an intersection where the traffic signal is out as a four-way stop, and use caution at all intersections.

Capital Area Transit is operating but may experience delays. For route information please call 485-RIDE (7433). Raleigh officials are also responding to reports of citizens displaced by the storm by providing temporary shelter at two parks and recreation department facilities.

The shelters are at Sanderford Road Park, 2623 Sanderford Road; and Millbrook Exchange Community Center, 1905 Spring Forest Road.

The temporary shelters will be open until county officials open a shelter at Heritage High School, 1150 Forestville Road, Wake Forest.

Those seeking shelter should bring everything they need to be comfortable, including bedding, medications and food that does not need preparation while at the shelter.

No pets will be allowed. The North Carolina Highway Patrol will be conducting an aerial assessment of the damage.

If your home experiences a power outage or gas leak, please report the outage to Progress Energy at 508-5400 and PSNC 1-877-776-2427 do not call 9-1-1 except in an emergency..

More than 33,000 power outages have been reported in Wake County, with at least 70,000 throughout the eastern region and parts of Asheville, a Progress Energy spokesman reported.

"We expect those numbers to increase as the storm continues," Scott Sutton, a Progress Energy spokesman said.

Sutton said most of the power outages have been caused by trees falling on power lines.

"Our next biggest one is falling debris," Sutton said. "Or pieces falling and flying and hitting our structures."

The storm, despite much advance warning, spurred some unusual actions this afternoon. At a ballet performance at the Progress Energy Center in downtown Raleigh, officials pulled down metal shutters.

Staff and personnel at WakeMed in Raleigh, northeast of downtown, moved to safe areas of the hospital as a safety precaution, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The weather system sweeping through the state had been classified as "particularly dangerous" because of the widespread damage it left over the past few days across the South.

As meteorologists focused on the progress of the departing system, emergency workers in Wake, Lee, Durham and Chatham counties tended to the wreckage.

In Raleigh, businesses and homes near the intersection of Maywood and South Saunders streets, just south of downtown Raleigh, were hit hard.

Traffic lights had fallen in the streets. Giant pin oaks were uprooted.

Trees were blocking lanes of traffic ,and roofs flew off houses.

The roof was ripped off Earp's Seafood, a mainstay business on South Saunders Street about a mile from downtown.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said his deputies have been dispatched to heavy damage in Holly Springs.

Meanwhile, fallen trees have left Cass Holt Road in the southern side of the county nearly impassable. Some secondary roads in northern Wake County — including Mitchell Mill, Forestville and Old South roads — are blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines, Harrison added.

Photographer Robert Willett; staff writers Martha Quillin, Steve Lyttle, Colin Campbell and Eric Frederick; and designer Brian Wasson contributed to this report.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 836-4948

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