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ZEBULON — A tornado with winds up to 115 mph tore through a 17-mile stretch of eastern Wake County on Monday, destroying homes, blocking highways, flipping vehicles, tearing down trees and power lines and leaving some areas of Zebulon and Wendell in disarray.
Emergency officials said it was lucky no one was hurt.
The National Weather Service on Tuesday, after sending a crew to survey the damage, classified the tornado as EF2, which is considered a significant tornado. Tornadoes are measured on a scale from EF0, the weakest, to EF5, the most devastating.
Monday’s tornado touched down at 10:13 a.m. west of Rolesville Road near Tink’s Place, about 2 miles northwest of downtown Knightdale, according to the National Weather Service’s report. It continued due east, carved out a path as wide as a football field, crossed U.S. Highway 64 and lifted just east of Winters Road in Nash County, about seven miles east of Zebulon, at 10:39 a.m.
Along the way, the tornado “moved through the heart of downtown Zebulon,” according to Darrell Alford, deputy director of Wake County Government Fire Services and Operations.
Alford said as the tornado traveled, it was “uprooting trees, downing power lines, leveling structures and bringing traffic to a standstill on U.S. Highway 64 and (N.C.) Highway 97.”
Emergency officials say it appeared the tornado touched down, lifted, and touched back down multiple times along its path before finally dispersing.
Within the first hour after the storm had passed, emergency crews responded to more than 60 calls for service, Alford said.
“We are really fortunate no one was injured,” Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said, calling the storm “really brutal.”
That brutality was seen in the storms aftermath: Near downtown Zebulon, trees had been snapped like matchsticks, crushing roofs and damaging cars. Near a business on West Gannon Avenue, metal roofing had blown off the structure and was left tangled in the branches of nearby trees.
Near Leonard Coats’ townhome on Lanier Lane in Zebulon, the constant sound of chainsaws filled the air — broken only by the chopping noise of a news helicopter above — as residents got to work removing debris from their yards.
“We are blessed it didn’t destroy any houses,” Coats said, carrying branches into a pile Tuesday afternoon. A tree fell on a vacant home across the street, but no other homes in his neighborhood were damaged.
Coats pointed to the top of a tree that had broken. Its branches were twisted upward by powerful winds.
Nearby, Dwight Johnson, a contractor, inspected the roof of a home. He said he had removed a two-inch-thick stick that had impaled a roof and was left sticking straight up.
A nearby pine tree had snapped and came tumbling down, landing 50 feet away onto one home’s back porch.
“It took out the whole steps and everything,” Johnson said, looking up at the tree and noticing how far it had fallen. “Tornadoes do weird things,” he added.
More than 6,000 customers were without power in Wake County around noon Monday. That number dipped to just under 3,000 by the late afternoon, and all power was restored by Tuesday.
Zebulon Police Chief Timothy Hayworth said many traffic lights were not working during rush hour on Tuesday.
Portions of N.C. Highway 97 and U.S. Highway 64 were closed for much of Monday, but were reopened Tuesday, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. The department said the roads were blocked by trees and power lines.
According to the weather service’s report, some of the worst damage was along Weathers Road, near where the tornado touched down.
“At Weathers Road, structural damage was noted as a single-family home had its exterior walls collapsed,” the report said. “Several metal farm buildings were also completely destroyed and strewn about a field. Sheet metal was wrapped around a nearby tree. An RV was flipped over numerous times landing crushed in an open field. In addition, another home had the windows blown out with roof damage.”
In Zebulon, the tornado snapped and uprooted many trees, some which reportedly fell on homes and displaced families.
Shannon Speller, an associate pastor at Zebulon Baptist Church on North Street, said one of the church’s building’s had damage done to its windows and roofing.
But some churchgoers, who also live along North Street, had trees fall on their homes, causing significant damage, she said. Three families that go to the church are displaced, she said.
“I feel certain a couple of them will be a long-term displacement but they are staying with family here in town,” Speller said. “I know one of them a tree went right through the middle of the home.”
The church and other community organizations, such as N.C. Baptist Men and the Red Cross, have been offering assistance to those seriously impacted by storm damage.
Eastern Wake, New Hope, town of Knightdale, Corinth-Holders, Garner, Raleigh, Hopkins, Rolesville, Wake Forest and Western Wake fire departments responded to storm damage. Wake County EMS, Eastern Wake EMS, Wendell Police Department, Zebulon Police Department, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office and the N.C. State Highway Patrol assisted in efforts as well.