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Charlotte Observer: Rare Winter Twisters Rampage In 2 N.C. Counties

Friends and family help remove the contents from Kenneth Shull and Tina Woodruff's home on Johnson Bridge Road in Hildebran

HILDEBRAN Residents picked through the rubble of their homes and officials fanned out across two stricken North Carolina foothills counties Thursday in the wake of tornadoes that struck as many people sat down to dinner Wednesday evening. Friends and family help remove the contents from Kenneth Shull and Tina Woodruff's home on Johnson Bridge Road in Hildebran Thursday morning. Photo: Jeff Wilhelm No fatalities were reported in the rare January twister outbreak, but 15 people were injured and dozens of homes were damaged. Authorities in Burke County have declared a state of emergency. At a stop in the Burke County town of Hildebran around noon Thursday, Gov. Bev Perdue said her office was assessing whether additional state aid was needed. A team from the National Weather Service surveyed the damage in Burke and Rutherford counties and said Thursday evening that EF2 tornadoes were responsible. The Rutherford twister, near Ellenboro, had 115 mph winds, and the Burke tornado carried 130 mph winds. Tornadoes are rated on their wind speed, ranging from EF0 to EF5. An EF2 has winds of 110 to 135 mph. Many of those affected by the storms said they had little warning. The sound of chain saws and hammers could be heard Thursday as crews cleared trees from roads and residents removed debris from their yards. Displaced residents flocked to emergency shelters that have been opened by the American Red Cross in the Rutherford County town of Bostic and in the Burke County town of Icard. Nearly 60 homes were damaged by the storms, according to the Red Cross. Five suffered major damage. Anthony Cline of Icard said this is the worst natural disaster in his town in two decades. Cline was eating dinner with his family Wednesday evening when the front window broke and wind began gushing in. He rushed his family into their basement. As he tried to shut the door while carrying his 11-year-old daughter down the stairs, the home's roof blew off. The family huddled beneath the stairs for about 30 seconds. No one was injured, but when Cline came up he could see the sky. On Thursday, the family's uneaten chicken casserole lay spilled on the floor. A pot of macaroni and cheese was still on the stove, filled partially with rainwater. "This is worse than Hugo," said Cline, 43, comparing Wednesday's storm to the 1989 hurricane that killed dozens in the Caribbean and South Carolina and left Icard without power for days. "Hugo took some of the siding off the house. This took it all." Terry Helton of Hildebran said he was watching a television report about storms headed toward his town when the power went out in his home Wednesday night. He grabbed a mattress from his bedroom and placed it on top of himself and his girlfriend as they huddled inside a doorway. "All I heard was the whoosh," he said. "Next thing I knew, it was raining on our heads." His senses overwhelmed by the wind, he didn't realize the roof was gone until after the storm had passed. When he went outside, he made another discovery - his 1985 Ford Ranger truck was upside down in his driveway. The first tornado touched down about 5:30 p.m. in eastern Rutherford County, near Ellenboro, where two teenage girls were killed in a severe storm in May. This time, 10 people were injured and dozens of homes destroyed, mostly along Harvey Logan and Piney Mountain roads. One of those injured was in critical condition, Rutherford County emergency management officials said. A short time later, a tornado - apparently from the same severe storm - roared through an area along Johnson Bridge Road and South Fork Avenue, about halfway between Icard and Hildebran in eastern Burke County. Five people were hurt, and 50 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged. The tornado then apparently crossed Interstate 40, a short distance west of the N.C. 118 bridge, and cut a path toward Lake Hickory. Caldwell County officials say the storm overturned boats, tore apart a pier, and damaged a building at the Lake Hickory Marina. Burke County Schools opened on a two-hour delay because of the damage in the eastern part of the county. Authorities in Burke and Rutherford counties used the word "devastating" to describe the damage from the tornadoes, which are a rarity in January. Greg Forbes, a severe weather specialist at the Weather Channel, said there is no record of a January tornado previously in either county. Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.