After tornadoes erupted over Oklahoma on Thursday, barreled across much of the Deep South, then hit North Carolina and Virginia before moving out to sea Sunday, at least 43 people died and hundreds more were injured or left homeless.
Bearing the brunt was North Carolina—including its capital city of Raleigh— where tornadoes as loud as freight trains roared through Saturday afternoon and evening, killing at least 22 people, and sending 130 to hospitals, some with critical injuries. The storm also destroyed 60 homes and heavily damaged 400 more, according to emergency management officials in the state, where Gov. Bev Perdue has declared a state of emergency.
Some 348 people camped out Sunday in nine shelters in North Carolina, while morning church services were filled with prayers for victims of the devastation. Raleigh residents woke to find many of the city's ubiquitous pine trees cracked in half. Up and down streets in the working-class neighborhood of Skycrest in northeast Raleigh, cranes and crews pulled trees off roofs and cleared power lines from roads.
At least 35 tornadoes were reported from Oklahoma to North Carolina over the three days. The event was ferocious but modest when compared to some prior weather events. In what the weather service dubbed "the super tornado outbreak" on April 3-4, 1974, 148 twisters tore a path of more than 2,500 miles, killing 330 people, and striking 13 Midwestern and Southern states.
In North Carolina, the outbreak of twisters arose after two wind systems played off each other, said Ron Steve a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. As southeast winds of 20 mph traveled close to the ground, southwest winds 5,000 feet up moved at 70 mph. The conditions gave "the atmosphere that little bit of spin," explained Mr. Steve, and "were conducive for the thunder storms that developed to start rotating."
The tornados, as many as eight in central North Carolina alone, were accompanied by hail the size of ping-pong balls, said Scott Sharp, another meteorologist with the weather service. "This was a once every decade or two event for North Carolina," he said, citing the last comparable storm as one in 1984.