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Deadly Tornadoes Roar Through South, Midwest; Hundreds Left Homeless

April 18, 2011 at 5:50 PM EDT
After deadly tornadoes pummeled states across the South and Midwest over the weekend, emergency workers assessed the devastation and continued to search for victims on Monday. Gwen Ifill discusses the storm's aftermath with David Schrader of the American Red Cross.
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GWEN IFILL: Survivors and officials counted the human and material costs today of the weekend’s swarm of tornadoes. At least 44 people died in half-a-dozen states.

The sheer scale of the destruction facing cleanup crews and search teams spread in all directions in areas hardest-hit by the storms. Despite damage or destroyed homes, many were simply happy to have survived, like this man Sunday in Sanford, N.C.

NICHOLAS FLYNN, tornado survivor: I’m grateful to be here and that my family and is still here and all my friends. So, yes, I’m grateful.

GWEN IFILL: The storms began Thursday, as a series of funnel clouds plowed across southeastern Oklahoma.

MAN: We have got two, three!

GWEN IFILL: The violent weather then front then cut across the deep South, before hitting North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday, spawning reports of more than 240 tornadoes. Sixty-two twisters were counted in North Carolina alone.

Gov. Beverly Perdue sized up the damage today and the outlook.

GOV. BEVERLY PERDUE, D-N.C.: Every community is open, trying to get back to work and to clean up and to move on for the future. I mean, it’s — it’s just a lot of faith, a lot of community, a lot of friends, but it’s just the spirit of North Carolina.

GWEN IFILL: In the city of Sanford, this Lowe’s hardware store was ripped apart by a massive tornado with winds of 160 miles an hour.

MAN: It sounded like the whole world was just being sucked up into the air, but it was around — all around you.

GWEN IFILL: One hundred people were inside when the storm hit. They survived after managers rushed everyone to the center of the store as the steel roof began to peel off.

KIM THOMAS, Lowe’s Home Improvement: And I looked immediately as I was pivoting to run away, and I just saw a big giant gray cloud funneling.

GWEN IFILL: But others never had a chance. A number of deaths occurred in mobile home parks, including three children in Raleigh. Many of those areas were still closed to residents today.

HARRY DOLAN, Raleigh police chief: Some of the trailers are unstable, that may actually fall off their footings.

GWEN IFILL: With hundreds of homes damaged, scores of people were left with almost nothing.

MAN: We don’t know, like, actually where we’re going to live.

MAN: I cleaned up Hurricane Katrina, and I cleaned up after Hurricane Ike. And the devastation in this park right here is on that same level. I mean, it’s total devastation. In some areas, it’s just — it’s gone.

GWEN IFILL: Nearby Shaw University shut down with eight days left in the semester and canceled its final exams. Plywood covered shattered dormitory windows.

WOMAN: Oh, it’s best that they leave and get off campus and be safe somewhere else.

GWEN IFILL: All told, the weekend assault was one of the worst in decades involving tornadoes. The National Weather Service blamed a rare conjunction of forces.

JEFFREY ORROCK, National Weather Service: The weather conditions that are necessary to produce storms of this magnitude, these monsters, these supercells. It’s like making a cake. And you have got to have all the right ingredients. And all the right ingredients came into play.

GWEN IFILL: All across the affected areas today, state government leaders say it will take days before they have a full picture of the damage — from flattened homes in Virginia, to this ruined church in South Carolina, to flipped-over trailers in Oklahoma.

Officials estimate it will take millions of dollars to carry out rebuilding in the months ahead.

We have more now on the aftermath and the recovery in North Carolina.

It comes from David Schrader of the American Red Cross. He joins us from Raleigh.

Mr. Schrader, how extensive is the damage that you have seen?

DAVID SCHRADER, American Red Cross: Extensive. The damage is extensive.

We arrived last night and took a tour driving around throughout Raleigh all day today. And what’s remarkable and what’s striking is the fact that you go house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, and one house is pretty much intact, but a house across the street or right next door is leveled.

And that — that happens throughout the entire downtown area. This is not out in the, you know, rural areas with wide-open spaces. This is in residential neighborhoods right in the city. And it’s everywhere you drive. Everywhere we drove coming in, in the neighborhoods, there was no place we went we didn’t see some — some sort of remnants of the disaster.

GWEN IFILL: Including at Shaw University that we just saw in that piece, right?

DAVID SCHRADER: Yes. We drove by Shaw University. And you could see all the windows were shattered. There were trees everywhere. I could see why they decided to cancel classes.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to know — we know we have heard the latest numbers of casualties, of fatalities are — is at 44. But is there any way to keep count of how many people have been left homeless by these — these — these tornadoes, not just in North Carolina but around the country.

DAVID SCHRADER: It’s very difficult to track exact numbers. We tracked the number of people coming into our shelters.

We had about 500 people come to our shelters over the weekend. That number is down to about 300 in the state of North Carolina, with seven shelters open. We had about 120 at a shelter in Wake County. It’s probably the largest number of people in one location. That’s how we track people, as — state officials will probably do a better job of pinpointing exact numbers on a day-to-day basis.

GWEN IFILL: When we talk about disasters like this, it’s usually located in one place, whether it’s in a country like Haiti or it’s in another location where we have seen earthquakes or hurricanes. In this case, because it was a series of tornadoes, we’re talking about 15 states. How unusual is that, being so widespread?

DAVID SCHRADER: Very unusual.

And the thing that makes tornadoes so unpredictable — or so dangerous is because they’re so unpredictable. And the fact that there were so many over such a wide area is really the part that is sort of awe-inspiring in some cases.

Here, a tornado would just pop up and disappear and then pop up in another location all over the place. It’s kind of unusual for that to happen and certainly in such a big area in such a short amount of time, which is why the Red Cross is fanned out for over, like, five states, going to people, helping them out, providing food and shelter and clothing to those who need it.

We fan out. We have volunteers arriving by the hour helping out, mobile food going out and delivering food to people in the neighborhoods, that sort of thing. That is going all around all across five states right now.

GWEN IFILL: Was this something that we had — that the people who were in the path of the tornado saw coming? Was there adequate warning this time?

DAVID SCHRADER: I couldn’t talk — I couldn’t speak to whether or not there was adequate warning. I just know that many of the folks we did speak to had an opportunity to get to safety.

I met a gentleman in one of the shelters. His name was Leo. And his children were playing outside, like kids would do on a Saturday afternoon riding their skateboards, playing ball in their yard. And they saw a sort of storm coming that was pretty loud and thunderous. But the kids thought it was just a typical thunderstorm.

But Leo, he — he heard sort of what sounded like a freight train coming. And he knew this was different. And he brought the children inside. And they waited out — about two to five minutes, they waited it out, just hoping for the best. Their house was destroyed. Most of the neighbors’ houses were destroyed. He came to the Red Cross shelter.

But he was lucky to be — he was lucky — he felt lucky. He was alive. His family was alive. Not everyone could say that. And despite the fact that sort of his life was turned upside-down, he still felt lucky, grateful for the work that the Red Cross was doing at the shelter and grateful for the work they were doing for his neighbors.

GWEN IFILL: If people want to help victims of these tornadoes, how do they do that?

DAVID SCHRADER: There’s three things they can do. They can click, text, or call.

They can click on the website redcross.org. You can make a financial donation that way. You can call 1-800-RED-CROSS and make a financial donation that way. Or you can also make one through your — by text messaging, by texting the word “redcross” to 90999. Ten dollars will automatically appear on your phone bill.

It’s real easy, real simple, probably the best, fastest, easiest way to help. And that money will go to good use to help disaster victims here and other areas where the Red Cross is always on alert and always helping.

GWEN IFILL: And perhaps give some relief to people who are suffering.

Dave Schrader with the American Red Cross, thank you so much.

DAVID SCHRADER: Thank you.