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Tornado Delivers 135 MPH Punch

A tornado with winds of up to 135 mph ripped a trail of destruction across parts of northeast Mecklenburg and southern Cabarrus counties early Saturday morning, damaging nearly 90 homes and leaving three people injured. Storm winds ripped roofs off houses, overturned vehicles, and knocked down hundreds of trees and power lines. On Saturday afternoon, police and fire authorities were still urging the public to stay away from the area -- along Plaza Road Extension, Reedy Creek Road, and along Robinson Church and Harrisburg roads. "It will be very important today for people in the affected neighborhoods to be alert -- stay away from damage areas, because of the danger of downed power lines," said Charlotte fire Capt. Rob Brisley. The American Red Cross said a preliminary assessment showed three homes were destroyed, and another eight were severely damaged. In all, the Red Cross said, 89 homes were damaged. A team of National Weather Service meteorologists surveyed the area Saturday morning and determined that an EF2 tornado, with winds of 130 to 135 mph, was responsible for the damage. Harry Gerapetritis, of the Weather Service office in Greer, S.C., said the storm was on the ground 3.8 miles and cut a path between 150 and 200 yards wide. In Mecklenburg County, the damage was centered in two neighborhoods near Reedy Creek Park. Many people were forced from their homes in that area. Brisley said homes in Reedy Creek Plantation and Brookstead, two communities across from Reedy Creek Elementary School, apparently took the brunt of the storm. Alicia Watson, resident of Satterfield Court in the Reedy Creek neighborhood, witnessed the possible tornado and surveyed the damage early this morning. "We were home at the time and we took shelter upstairs because we tried to go downstairs and saw our windows being shattered out," Watson said. "It blew out the back of our house." Watson began to cry as she described the storm that damaged her home around 3 a.m., "It sounded like a train coming through the house." Four people were home at the time of the storm, including relatives who had flown in from Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Reedy Creek resident Maria Perez, also heard the storm blow through. "My house was rattling and I heard the wind and windows in my house shaking," Perez said. "My daughter was screaming and we ran to my sister's house." Perez's sister lives on Satterfield Court where much of the damage occurred in the neighborhood. Medic's Young said the three injured people lived in Brookstead. Reedy Creek Elementary was not damaged. The storm apparently crossed over Interstate 485, but there were no reports of storm-related wrecks. Cabarrus County spokeswoman Aimee Hawkins said damage there was centered in the Steeple Chase neighborhood, off Robinson Church Road. That is part of the 2-mile path of destruction that started in the Reedy Creek area. By Saturday evening, Cabarrus County had declared a state of emergency for the area near Harrisburg hit by the tornado. Hawkins said the estimated cost to replace the 49 damaged homes there, including four that were destroyed, is nearly $1.9 million. State damage assessments teams will come to the county Monday to determine whether the properties will qualify for state or federal assistance. The American Red Cross has set up shelters at Northridge Middle School in Mecklenburg County and at Hickory Ridge High School in Cabarrus County. A shelter initially was opened at Reedy Creek Elementary School, but that was closed at 7 a.m. because power was out. As of 8 a.m., the Northridge Middle shelter tended to 20 local residents, said Bob Hayes, shelter manager. "We plan to be open as long as necessary," Hayes said. " We have seen no injuries here. Everybody is doing OK right now considering the situation." At one point early Saturday, more than 14,000 power outages were reported. Duke Energy crews were able to cut that number to about 1,000 -- nearly all of them on the Cabarrus side of the storm path -- by 5 p.m. The storm struck shortly before 3 a.m., and without any tornado or severe thunderstorm warnings. The National Weather Service had expected severe weather to remain south and southwest of Charlotte, because meteorologists said the atmosphere had not become unstable enough to support severe weather. The storms are part of the same huge system that spawned killer tornadoes Friday and early Saturday across parts of the Midwest and South. The damage path started near Reedy Creek Elementary, caused by a storm that was traveling about 60 mph. Winds ripped roofs and tore siding off houses, many of them two-story structures. Garages were blown apart, and large pine trees were ripped in half. Charlotte firefighters went door to door in the Reedy Creek Plantation and Brookstead communities, helping people to safety and checking for possible injury victims. "We had one case of a residential natural gas line ruptured, but firefighters controlled the leak," Brisley said. One Brookstead resident, Armando Ramirez, said the storm came up suddenly. "The sound was horrible," Ramirez said. "The kids were screaming, we were all frightened." Kate Meier of the American Red Cross said about two dozen people spent much of the night at the Reedy Creek Elementary shelter. She said when dawn arrived, many of those people left the shelter to check on damage at their homes. "I walked through a neighborhood, and there was extensive damage," Meier said. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who walked through the neighborhood described seeing houses with their sides ripped off, and overturned vehicles. It was much the same in Cabarrus County. "Approximately 20 homes were damaged in the Steeple Chase neighborhood near Harrisburg," Hawkins said. "About five of those homes suffered significant damage and are not habitable." Brisley said Mecklenburg County building inspectors were on the scene Saturday morning, checking the damaged homes to see how many were not habitable. Cabarrus County officials were doing the same thing along Robinson Church Road.