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Hard-hit areas of South in 'recovery mode' after deadly tornadoes

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: : A North Carolina man describes hitting the ground to shield his daughter from a twister
  • Weather service confirms at least 97 tornadoes in three-day outbreak
  • Weekend outbreak is largest since 2008, records show
  • Storms forecast for Tuesday could bring tornadoes, hail to Midwest

(CNN) -- Two days after the largest tornado outbreak since 2008 raked the Southeast, killing at least 45, the focus shifted Monday to cleanup.

"Everybody's been coming together," said Doug Western, pastor of Kendale Acres Free Will Baptist Church in Sanford, North Carolina. Along with the adjacent parsonage, the church escaped largely unscathed from the massive tornado Saturday that reduced several surrounding homes to sticks.

"That's the wonderful thing about this. We had people we didn't even know coming by wanting to help," said Western, whose church has served as a meal center for many neighbors and a base for delivering food and water to other neighbors by golf cart.

At least 97 tornadoes struck between Thursday and Saturday, according to National Weather Service records. Yet more tornadoes will probably be confirmed on top of the 249 reports received during the three-day period, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.

Twisters hit 12 states: Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. The reports are based on preliminary weather service reports that the agency warns are often revised downward after more complete information becomes available.

N.C. weatherman gets choked up
Students ride out storms in cafeteria
Tornado near N.C. capital

Of the 45 deaths reported, 22 were in North Carolina, six in Virginia, seven in Arkansas, seven in Alabama, one in Mississippi and two in Oklahoma.

In North Carolina, the storms destroyed more than 130 homes and damaged more than 700, according to Gov. Bev Perdue's office.

Hardest hit was rural Bertie County, where 11 of North Carolina's 22 deaths were reported.

"It ripped the houses to shreds," said David Lafon of the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, who helped with rescue efforts in Bertie County.

The storm destroyed 67 homes and severely damaged at least 15 in Bertie, County Manager Zee Lamb said.

"Starting today, we go into recovery mode," Lamb said Monday on CNN's "American Morning."

In Ammon, North Carolina, 70 miles south of Raleigh, a tornado lifted Milton Powell's home off the ground and spun it around twice, he told CNN affiliate WWAY.

"It was just like a bad ride," he said. "Everything outside came inside, and everything inside went out. I've got two dogs missing. I found one last night and have one missing that I think might be under the trailer."

In Onslow County, Marines pulled a 23-month-old boy alive from the rubble of a destroyed home after the child's mother stood up from the wreckage and said her child was buried, CNN affiliate WCTI reported.

"I started looking for stuff on the ground that was, you know, items for a baby, and I started getting to where I could see a lot of baby stuff, and I found the crib, and when I lifted the wall up, there was the baby right there," Sgt. Gregory Shafer was quoted as saying.

At Shaw University, where President Irma McClaurin decided to call off the rest of the semester because of damage to the campus, student Julius Stukes Jr. grabbed a video camera and gave a tour of the campus ravaged by a tornado on Saturday.

"All of the offices are done. Oh, my God, this used to be an office; it's not anymore," he says during the video provided to CNN affiliate WNCN. "Our campus is done. The whole campus is done."

Students at the private Baptist college, who have not yet taken final exams, will be graded on work done so far, McClaurin said in a statement. Graduation will continue as planned, McClaurin said.

In Sanford, employees at the Lowe's home improvement store are being credited with saving more than 100 lives by shepherding customers into a haven toward the rear of the store as tornadic winds literally nipped at their heels.

"The winds came roaring in within about 10 seconds," said Gary Hendricks, who drove to the store with his wife from their nearby home, thinking they would be safe there from the impending storm. "It roared right through the hallway we were in."

Images of the store show the roof peeled back over the front of the store, revealing rows of display shelves inside.

Assistant manager Bobby Gibson said it was like "ordered chaos" as employees and customers scurried under cover as debris flew and metal screeched around them.

"It was just people helping people," Gibson said of the effort to get people to shelter. "It was customers; it was employees; it was everybody working together."

Nearby, Terrie Rodriguez told HLN's Vinnie Politan that same twister was heading toward the Golden Corral, where she was working as manager in a restaurant full of patrons. She yelled for them to get into the kitchen, and away from the glass,

"It took me a few seconds to register what it was in my brain. I said, 'Oh my god -- its a freaking tornado,'" she recalled. "It was really terrifying."

Nearby in the same town, John Douglas described how he and a friend hit the floor to shield his 9-year-old daughter when a tornado rolled through the tractor supply store he was in.

"I was just praying to the Lord, please get us out of this alive, take care of us," he told HLN's Politan.

The deaths in North Carolina are the first from tornadoes since 2008, when two people died. In 1984, 42 people were killed in a tornado outbreak there.

In Virginia, Gov. Robert McDonnell toured storm damage and met with people affected by some of the at least five tornadoes that hit the state to discuss the pace of recovery operations.

"It looks as though the resources that have been dispatched are working incredibly well," McDonnell said.

Later Monday, the governor sent a letter to President Barack Obama, requesting a federal disaster declaration to expedite assistance to all Virginia communities -- including hard-hit Pulaski County -- affected by the storm.

The 97 tornadoes confirmed so far makes the outbreak the most active since June 2008, when 136 tornadoes ripped through the Midwest, according to National Weather Service records.

In February 2008, a 131-tornado outbreak struck the Southeast and Ohio Valley on Super Tuesday primary voting day, killing 57 people and causing more than $1 billion in damages, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

And in April 1974, an outbreak of 148 tornadoes struck in 24 hours, killing 330 people, according to National Weather Service records. That is the most tornadoes in a 24-hour period in U.S. history, Morris said.

Although it has been an active month, more severe weather appears to be on the way.

A weather system building toward the Midwest is expected to present a moderate risk of tornadoes, high winds and hail in parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky on Tuesday. None of the areas heavily affected by last week's storms is threatened by those forecast for Tuesday, CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras said.

CNN's Sean Morris contributed to this report.