A furious storm system that kicked up tornadoes, flash floods, and hail as big as softballs has left at least 39 people dead on a rampage that stretched for days as it barreled from Oklahoma to North Carolina and Virginia.
Emergency crews searched for victims in hard-hit swaths of North Carolina, where 62 tornadoes were reported from the worst spring storm in two decades to hit the state.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Sunday that state emergency management officials told her more than 20 were killed by the storms in North Carolina. However, the far-flung damage made it difficult to confirm the total number of deaths. The emergency management agency said it had reports of 22 fatalities, and media outlets and government agency tallies did not all match. The National Weather Service said 23 died in the state.
The governor planned to travel by helicopter to hard-hit areas of the state Sunday to survey damage.
Meanwhile, at least four deaths were reported in Virginia. Authorities warned the toll was likely to rise further Sunday as searchers probed shattered homes and businesses.
The storm claimed its first lives Thursday night in Oklahoma, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Authorities have said seven died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; two in Oklahoma; and one in Mississippi.
In North Carolina, the governor declared a state of emergency and said the 62 tornadoes reported were the most since March 1984, when a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas that killed 57 people – 42 in North Carolina – and injured hundreds.
In Virginia, Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner said one apparent tornado ripped across more than 12 miles through Gloucester County, uprooting trees and pounding homes to rubble while claiming three lives.
Scenes of destruction across the South looked eerily similar in many areas.
At one point, more than 250,000 people went without power in North Carolina before emergency utility crews began repairing downed lines. But scattered outages were expected to linger at least until Monday.
Among areas hit by power outages was Raleigh, a bustling city of more than 400,000 people where some of the bigger downtown thoroughfares were blocked by fallen trees early Sunday.
Police and rescue crews began conducting house-to-house searches later Saturday at a mobile home park in north Raleigh, where the storm snapped some trees in half, ripped others out of the ground and tossed some trailers from one side of a street to the other.
In Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh, a busy shopping district was pummeled by the storms, with some businesses losing rooftops in what observers described as a ferocious tornado. The Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford looked flattened, with jagged beams and wobbly siding sticking up from the pancaked entrance. Cars in the parking lot were flipped by the winds.