- - Monday, April 18, 2011

COLERAIN, N.C. | They aren’t used to tornadoes in North Carolina, let alone 60 of them.

When a deadly storm system that had unleashed twisters across the South was about to arrive, residents were out doing yard work, making plans for the Easter holiday or just gazing at the darkening skies.

Over four hours, they learned that a hurricane is not the only force of nature that can strike their state.

“The sky looks funny,” Jean Burkett recalled saying, as she looked out of her window around dinner time on Saturday night.

Then she called out to her husband, Richard. “Honey, come here,” she said. “You’ve never seen this before.”

Staring out her window, she saw a large tornado approaching her neighborhood in hardest-hit Bertie County. It would largely leave her home untouched, but demolished nearby houses and killed 11 people, Mrs. Burkett’s longtime friend among them.

At least 21 people died across the state, more than 130 were seriously injured and more than 800 homes were destroyed or damaged. At least 45 died across the South.

The conditions that created the deadly weather systems may appear once or twice a year in the tornado-prone Great Plains, but almost never in North Carolina.

“Saturday’s event will go down in history in North Carolina,” said Matthew Parker, an associate professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.

Initial reports said 60 tornadoes were spawned by the storm system. The worst of it was between roughly 2:53 p.m., when the first fatal twister touched down on the edge of Moore County in the central part of the state, and 6:55 p.m., when a tornado hit Bertie.

The first moved rapidly into a busy shopping and industrial area of Sanford, a city of nearly 25,000 about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh. It ripped the roof off a tractor-supply store and flattened the front of a Lowe’s home-improvement store, but no one was killed.

The storm continued losing and gaining strength as it cut a path to the northeast, entering Raleigh 10 minutes before 4 p.m.

Again, luck or providence or planning kept people safe.

The twister whipped through crowded neighborhoods, felling trees, smashing crypts in a downtown cemetery and causing so much damage to Shaw University that the school canceled the remaining two weeks of its spring semester.

When the storm hit a trailer park about five miles north of downtown, it killed several people.

As the tornado was slamming into the Raleigh mobile home park, another trailer park roughly 100 miles to the south was about 20 minutes from being smashed by a second storm.

Larry Tanner had heard the warnings on TV. At home with his wife and two of his three children, he looked outside, and it was sunny. But his son, a volunteer firefighter, came home to alert him that a tornado had touched down nearby.

Mr. Tanner walked outside and spotted a funnel cloud headed toward the house. It plowed into a building that houses his auto workshop. Inside were several cars, including a classic Camaro.

He was knocked on his back and watched as the winds ripped the roof off the house. In 30 seconds, it was over.

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