RALEIGH, N.C. – At least eight people were confirmed dead after a tornado tore through a tiny North Carolina town early Thursday as severe thunderstorms battered the southeast for a second day, leaving thousands without power and at least 12 storm-related deaths.
The tornado ripped through a mobile home park in a tiny Columbus County community this morning. The tornado flipped cars, shredded trees and ripped mobile homes to pieces.
Columbus County Commissioner Chairman Kip Godwin said authorities had mostly concluded their search efforts and have accounted for everyone on their list of missing persons. Earlier, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said 20 were hospitalized after the twister.
Two other storm victims died in car crashes early Thursday as heavy rain pelted North Carolina and South Carolina Electric and Gas Company said one of its workers, Ken Butler, 41, was electrocuted Thursday morning while working to restore power knocked out by a thunderstorm.
A man died Wednesday when a tornado struck his home in Louisiana as the storms began their path of destruction across the South. That brings the total confirmed death toll to at least 11 since the storm first started moving through the South.
In North Carolina, Columbus County Emergency Management officials had earlier said the death toll near the town of Riegelwood, about 20 miles west of Wilmington, could climb to nine after a tornado touched down there just before 7 a.m. ET., leveling dozens of homes, most of which are prefabricated construction, the Wilmington Star-News reported.
About 30 to 40 homes were damaged in the mobile home part in Riegelwood that was torn apart by the storm, Easley said. About 30 families are taking refuge in a shelter in town.
"We're going to do everything we possible can to get peoples' lives back together just as soon as we can and help make them whole again," Easley added.
The line of severe weather was reported moving through central Virginia at noon, where tornado and flood warnings were posted as far north as Baltimore.
"We've stepped across bodies to get [to] debris and search for other bodies here this morning," said Columbus County Commissioner Sammie Jacobs.
Lt. Everett Clendenin of the North Carolina Dept of Public Safety told FOX News shortly before 10:30 a.m. Thursday that local officials and rescue personnel are on the ground investigating reports of more fatalities. He said at least four homes were totally destroyed by tornadoes.
"We hope people were ready for it ... local news had been reporting that the storms were coming, a tornado warning was issued," he said when asked whether residents were prepared for the storm.
"Most of the severe weather has moved out of North Carolina but all along, we've been telling people to heed these warnings," Clendenin added. "Hopefully everyone who needs help is getting it."
The storms were expected to clear out of the area by afternoon, but serious dangers remained. About 13,000 people were still without power as of 2:30 p.m. ET, Easley said, warning residents of downed power lines.
There are numerous reports of damage in Alabama, Mississippi, the Florida Panhandle and North Carolina, as well as huge amounts of rain, wind, and even hail. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for central North Carolina, which is in effect until 3 p.m. ET Thursday. The weather service also issued an urban and small stream flood advisory for Nash County in central North Carolina.
In North Carolina, dozens of homes were destroyed when the tornado struck the Cape Fear River community of Riegelwood, about 20 miles west of the coastal city of Wilmington.
Searchers had found seven bodies in the wreckage by midday, and "that number very well may go up," said County Commissioner Chairman Kip Godwin, the designated spokesman for the county's emergency management office.
"When a tornado hits a mobile home, it's probably much more devastating," Godwin said. "Most of these homes were blown off their foundations and are now just piles of debris."
Alton Edwards, a member of the volunteer Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire and Rescue team, said storm struck "with very little warning."
"There were cars on top of one another," he said. "It's just about as bad as it gets."
Officials at hospitals in Columbus County and neighboring New Hanover County said they were treating 22 people with storm-related injuries and that at least five, including four children, were in critical condition. Easley activated the State Emergency Response Team and sent in emergency crews.
Off shore, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a pump to a fishing boat that was taking on water in 15-foot seas about 50 miles southeast of Charleston. There was one crewman aboard the 34-foot boat, which the Coast Guard escorted back to land.
Several states have been battered by the storms which began Wednesday, unleashing tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned mobile homes and tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines.
At least one tornado cut a path about two miles wide and three or four miles long in Greensburg, La., north of New Orleans, toppling trees and damaging buildings and power lines, said Maj. Michael Martin of the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office. A 43-year-old man was killed when the trailer he was in was destroyed, he said.
"That home just exploded," said Gordon Burgess, president of neighboring Tangipahoa Parish.
In Montgomery, Ala., high winds destroyed a skating rink Wednesday soon after 31 preschoolers and four adults fled to the only part of the building that turned out to be safe.
One child suffered a broken bone and another a cut to the head, but everyone else emerged unharmed from the crumpled wreck of the Fun Zone Skate Center, which doubled as a day-care facility.
In Mississippi's Lamar County, emergency operations center director James Smith said a possible tornado struck a subdivision outside Sumrall around 2:50 a.m., damaging or destroying 11 homes.
Smith said six people were taken to hospitals from the Sumrall area, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said two other people were injured in Greene County.
In North Carolina on Thursday, high winds injured two people, one critically, in Iredell County, The Charlotte Observer reported. Fallen trees blocked roads in Lincoln County, the newspaper reported.
Another possible tornado struck about midnight in eastern Gaston County, where a steeple was destroyed and part of the roof ripped off a church. Duke Energy reported nearly 3,000 customers without power in Gaston County, about 1,200 outages in Iredell County, and nearly 900 outages in Lincoln County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.