A day after a violent storm system swept across North Carolina, kicking up tornadoes and flattening much in its path, residents began the painful process of cleaning up and mourning those lost.
State officials said Sunday that the death toll from the storms is now at least 21, making it the deadliest thunderstorm system to hit the state in more than two decades. Three of the victims - two young siblings and a cousin - died instantly when a tree landed on a Raleigh mobile home. They had been cowering in a closet.
At least 130 people were injured - some severely - and hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.
Neighbors in affected communities pulled together Sunday, and volunteers stepped in to offer shelter and hot meals.
Shaw University took the extraordinary step of canceling the remainder of the semester after surveying the damage on its Raleigh campus.
"This is one that will be seared in a lot of people's memories," said Scott Sharp, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
North Carolina bore the brunt of a toxic weather system - characterized by strong, shifting winds lower in the atmosphere - which spawned tornadoes in seven states that have killed more than 40 people since Thursday.
Half of the North Carolina fatalities were in Bertie County, a rural county about 120 miles northeast of Raleigh that has just 21,000 residents.
Two apparent tornadoes cut a wide swath across the county, flattening houses and tossing farm equipment and vehicles, said Zee Lamb, Bertie County's manager.
"There are homes that are just totally leveled," he said. "Anybody who was in those homes could not have survived."
Among the dead were several elderly residents of an assisted-living facility that was in the path of the storm, Lamb said.
Similar scenes of destruction could be found in Wake County, Sanford and Dunn.
Gawkers but no officials
In northeast Raleigh, three children - Daniel Quistian, 9, and cousins Kevin Coronado, 3, and Osvaldo Coronado, 8, were crushed by a falling tree at Stony Brook North Mobile Home Park. A fourth child, a 6-month-old girl, is in critical condition.
In the neighborhoods just east and south of downtown Raleigh, there was amazement that no one was killed, given the scope of the damage.
The city of Raleigh had roughly 30 teams working to clear away debris.
Still, those venturing out Sunday into the damaged neighborhoods near downtown were confronted by an almost eerie absence of officialdom.
Busy intersections, such as Milburnie Road and Raleigh Boulevard, had no working stoplights or officers to smooth the flow of traffic.
Gawkers drove through the streets, mouths agape, with cameras and picture-taking cellphones.
Private tree services and Progress Energy trucks chipped away at the huge backlog of power outages, but the task was immense. More than 60,000 electricity customers remained without power late Sunday in a swath of counties running from the Triangle to the coast.
Along East Martin Street, enormous hardwoods had taken down and enveloped whole sections of power lines. On other downtown streets, poles and wires lay unattended in the roadway almost 24 hours after the storm had blown through.
On North King Charles Road, neighbors sat in aluminum chairs and talked of the massive old trees that had fallen and of the near-misses that others had experienced. The gawkers were there, too.
"My neighbor two doors down? Her house was cut right in two," said Maurice Richburg, who lives on Brighton Road.
Determined to help
For many, any sense of shock over the storm's power was quickly replaced by a desire to help their neighbors. The air in damaged neighborhoods buzzed with the sound of chain saws tearing into fallen trees.
People pulled generators out of garages and invited neighbors to run an extension cord. Others with Internet access allowed neighbors over to send a quick email to their families.
In Holly Springs, where a suspected tornado lifted the roof off a fire station and left a trail of badly damaged houses along Avent Ferry Road, help poured in from surrounding towns.
"We got smacked a lot harder than a lot of people thought," Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said. "The fortunate part is we had fire departments from about six or seven towns come and help."
Gov. Bev Perdue spent Sunday touring areas of the state hit the hardest by the storm. She declared a state of emergency for North Carolina on Saturday evening, a prerequisite for seeking federal disaster assistance.
For those caught in the storms' path, such assistance offered little hope of solving immediate problems.
As whole streets braced for a second day without power, they tossed blocks of dry ice into their freezers and began scarfing down anything perishable.
With insurance companies warning homeowners they might not see relief for three or four days, amateur tree technicians climbed up 20-foot ladders in their backyards and attacked downed limbs on their own.
The storm had its say.
Now it was time to get to work.
Staff writers Andy Kenney, Paul A. Specht and John Murawski contributed to this report.
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