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ZEBULON — Forceful winds associated with what officials believe to be a tornado ripped through Zebulon and Wendell Monday morning, damaging homes and blocking highways, and emergency workers say it is lucky no one was injured.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for eastern Wake County at 10:13 a.m. as a line of severe thunderstorms blew through the region, carrying hail, dense rain and strong wind gusts.
Fewer than 10 minutes later, residents around Zebulon and Wendell began calling 911 to report trees had fallen on houses and across roads, and that a possible tornado had touched down in the area, according to Darrell Alford, deputy director of Wake County Government Fire Services and Operations.
Alford said the tornado touched down west of Zebulon near Rolesville Road and Davistown Road and traveled east along N.C. Highway 97, leaving destruction in its wake.
"The tornado traveled seven or eight miles, is our estimate on the ground, uprooting trees, downing power lines, leveling structures and bringing traffic to a standstill on U.S. Highway 64 and (N.C.) Highway 97," Alford said. It eventually "moved through the heart of downtown Zebulon before it finally lifted on the east side."
Emergency officials say it appeared the tornado touched down, lifted, and touched back down multiple times along its path before finally dispersing.
A National Weather Service survey team is inspecting the damage and as of Tuesday morning, had not officially determined a tornado had touched down, although Alford said county officials suspect the damage was caused by a tornado.
Within the first hour after the storm had passed, emergency crews responded to more than 60 calls for service, Alford said. No injuries were reported, he added.
"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 broke. It's branches were twisted upward by powerful winds.
Nearby, Dwight Johnson, a contractor, inspected the roof of a home. He said he had removed a 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.
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.
N.C. Building Inspections were surveying damage and Duke Energy utility crews were repairing electric infrastructure on Monday.
Those needing help with storm damage can call 919-856-6480 to receive assistance from the N.C. Baptist Men or the Red Cross.