RALEIGH, N.C. -- A tornado hit a mobile home park in Columbus County in southeastern North Carolina Thursday morning, killing at least seven people, authorities said.
The tornado hit the Riegelwood community in the southeastern part of the county at about 6:30 a.m., damaging at least three homes and causing an unknown number of injuries, said Lt. Everett Clendenin of the state Highway Patrol. N.C. Highway 87 was blocked by debris, he said, and authorities had blocked off other roads in the area to assist storm victims.
Traffic was being detoured off N.C. 87 onto N.C. Highway 11 and U.S. Highway 74/76.
Gov. Mike Easley activated the State Emergency Response Team Thursday morning and dispatched emergency crews to assist affected counties. He said he likely wouldn't activate the National Guard because Highway Patrol and local authorities could secure the area.
Columbus County Emergency Management had confirmed seven fatalities by late Thursday morning, Easley said.
County Commissioner Kipling Godwin said at least 10 people were transported by ambulances and helicopter to area hospitals early Thursday to be treated for injuries.
Five children and two adults were taken to New Hanover Regional Hospital in Wilmington, spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach said. Four of the children were listed in critical condition, and a 16-year-old and two adults were listed in fair condition, she said.
"It's pretty well devastated," Columbus County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs said in a telephone interview with WRAL. "I've heard about being in a war zone, but this is something to behold."
The tornado hit a mobile home park about a mile from the Cape Fear River and left an extensive area covered with debris. Godwin said tractors and backhoes were being brought into the area to help remove debris and search for survivors.
"It's going to have to be a total combing of the area to try to account for everybody," Godwin said in a telephone interview with WRAL, noting rescue personnel from Columbus, Brunswick and Bladen counties were spray-painting an X on each home that had been checked.
"There are houses on top of cars and cars on top of trees," Jacobs said. "Telephone and power poles have been shredded."
The commissioners said the unincorporated community has no sirens to warn of severe weather.
"I'm sure it caught them off guard, and they didn't have a lot of time to take cover," Godwin said.
Authorities have set up a temporary morgue in a nearby firehouse, Godwin said.
"Our focus is trying to rescue and recover everyone who's still alive," he said.
The Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross and county emergency management officials opened a shelter at Acme-Delco Elementary School, at 16337 Old Lake Road in Riegelwood, to assist evacuated residents. About 30 families had sought shelter at the school by mid-morning, said Vicki Chapman, the executive director of the Red Cross chapter.
"We're prepared to do what we need to do as long as we need to do it," Chapman said, noting Red Cross volunteers would provide food, clothing, shelter and health and mental health services for affected residents.
Columbus County schools were closed Thursday, authorities said.
System Moves Across State
The tornado was part of a cold front that produced severe weather across the Deep South on Wednesday and created a wet and windy commute in the Triangle early Thursday.
A tornado watch remained in effect for much of eastern North Carolina until 3 p.m. Various tornado warnings also were issued throughout the morning.
High winds blew out a window at Dillard Middle School in Goldsboro, injuring one child, authorities said. The student was taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital for treatment of a lacerated arm.
WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said wind gusts of about 60 mph were reported in Johnston County, and a few buildings near Greensboro were damaged by high winds.