RALEIGH, North Carolina – The worst tornadoes to strike the United States in almost three decades have left at least 44 people dead and hundreds injured across six states, emergency officials said Sunday.
The spring storms first hit Oklahoma on Thursday and left a trail of destruction as they whipped up more than 100 reported tornadoes through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, before petering out in Virginia on Saturday night.
Witnesses described hailstones the size of grapefruit and powerful twisters that ripped the roofs off houses and picked up mobile homes as if they were children’s toys.
Large trees knocked out power and fell on cars and houses, killing occupants, while flash floods reportedly washed away an entire camping site in worst-hit North Carolina.
“This is the worst storm, tornado-wise since 1984,” Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the North Carolina state capital Raleigh, told AFP, putting the toll there at 23.
1984 saw the most destructive tornadoes in more than a century, with twisters sweeping through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, killing 57 people and injuring more than 1,000.
“I actually do remember the last one,” said McQuillan. “I believe that the destruction may even be greater this time than it was in 1984.”
Some 60 homes in North Carolina were completely destroyed on Saturday and more than 400 others damaged with 84,000 people facing days without power.
North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue, who has declared a state of emergency, was to tour some of the worst-affected areas for herself on Sunday afternoon.
Among seven people killed in Alabama were a mother and her two children sheltering inside their mobile home when it was thrown some 500 feet (150 meters) onto its roof, disaster officials said.
One twister did its best to wipe the small Oklahoma town of Tushka, population 350, off the map.
It struck on Thursday night, tearing up nearly all the town’s homes and businesses, killing two residents and injuring 43 others.
“Hail to the size of softballs and winds of 85 mph (137 kilometers per hour) were also reported,” said a bulletin posted by emergency officials.
Seven others died in Arkansas, four in Virginia, and one in Mississippi.
“There is nothing left of my home. My home is destroyed, gone, and my dog has died,” said a woman interviewed by CBS in Dunn, North Carolina. “Everything. It’s gone. Nobody has nothing left,” said another.
Television pictures showed whole residential neighborhoods with roofs missing and emergency crews scrambling to clear up the twisted and tangled wreckage.
Paul Banks in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Weather Channel how he had been in his sport utility vehicle when he saw another car spinning towards him and the back windows of his vehicle just exploded.
“We saw a piece of roof go right by us and I said ‘son, I think there is a tornado right there,’ and before I could stop the truck it was on us and we pulled into a car dealership looking for a ditch. It only had a flat parking lot and the roof ripped off,” he said.
Bulletins on state emergency websites relayed a list of personal tragedies as well as some lucky escapes.
“Franklin County: A mobile home was blown off of its foundation south of Branch on Eucel Road. It was occupied at the time but there were no injuries,” read one from Arkansas.
Virginia was the last state to be hit significantly before the storms petered out on Sunday.
“There is everything: from trees that are sheared off at the ground, to buildings that have lost shingles, to collapsed roofs, to some flattened trailers (mobile homes),” emergency official Laura Southard told AFP.
“A school in Gloucester County, Virginia has lost its roof and may be more severely damaged. Today is really being spent figuring out how extensive the damage is and what the next steps are.
“We’ve not had a widespread group of storms like this in some time,” she added.
The total number of injured was hard to assess as reports were still coming in, but it would probably run into the several hundred, officials said.