Updated at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2021.
Forecasters have determined it was an EF3 tornado that touched down in Brunswick County last night, killing three people and injuring 10. The tornado struck just before midnight and ripped apart houses in a neighborhood near Shallotte, about 40 miles southwest of Wilmington.
The National Weather Service now says it had a top wind speed of 160 miles per hour.
Randy Thompson, the chair of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners and former member of the state Emergency Response Commission, reviewed the damage.
"I have had the opportunity to go into the area. I have seen devastation that I have not seen in many years, having a public safety background myself. It truly was a disaster last night," said Thompson. In an interview with CNN, Thompson called the disaster a "very tragic event for our community and our county."
Authorities were able to rescue some people who were trapped in debris. There are no reports of anyone missing.
The tornado was spawned along the edge of the same weather system bringing bitterly cold temperatures to much of the nation.
As it tore through the Ocean Ridge Plantation Community and another rural area, it destroyed homes, snapped trees in half and downed power lines, news outlets reported.
At least 50 homes were damaged, officials told WHQR. During the peak of the power outage, more than 35,000 people were without electricty.
“The sky lit up and there was a lot of pop-pop-popping. And the loud thunder. And then it sounded like a train, a freight train coming through. The roar of a freight train. That’s when all the damage occurred," said Sharon Benson, 63. She said her roof was damaged, the garage door was blown off, windows were shattered and nearby trees were uprooted.
Steve McCreedy, 69, told the Associated Press by phone that he and his wife were awakened by their dog and dove into a closet as they heard their windows shattering and trees snapping outside.
“I heard my dog was kind of whimpering and I got up and went in to see her. And all of a sudden I just started hearing the rumbling, like they say, the train getting louder and louder,” McCreedy said. “So I yelled to my wife, and we have an interior closet that we have designated as the place to go when something like that happens. And we dove in there. As soon as that happened, we had glass shattering and the trees were breaking.”
Photos distributed by the sheriff’s office showed first responders walking through a debris field of uprooted trees and crumpled piles of boards and bricks in the golf course community. Hours later, aerial footage from a WRAL-TV news helicopter showed a handful of home lots covered in splintered wood, with debris trailing from one house onto the fairway of the golf course. Several other roofs had damage ranging from torn-off shingles to roof beams exposed where the storm tore a hole.
“It’s something like I have never seen before. A lot of destruction. It’s going to be a long recovery process,” Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram said at a press conference early Tuesday.
Ingram said at the Tuesday morning press conference that searches for missing people were underway and would increase during the day. He asked people to avoid the area while crews work to clear the streets and search for victims.
On Tuesday morning, Brunswick County Emergency Management said people were trapped in homes. The Wilmington Fire Department tweeted that it would send teams to help find people missing after the tornado.
Edward Conrow, the emergency services director for Brunswick County, told NPR that search and rescue teams were working through the morning to locate any missing people or those who may be injured and stuck in their homes. Those teams were briefly pulled out of Ocean Ridge after propane leaks were discovered. A hazmat team was called in.
Conrow told reporters that the community had little notice of the dangerous weather and that a tornado warning wasn't issued until the storm was already on the ground and causing damage.
“We’ve been talking with our partners at the National Weather Service, and they were very surprised how rapidly this storm intensified," he said. "It’s something they normally don’t see. So we didn’t have much warning. And at the time of night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation.”
Conrow declined to offer details about the injuries or deaths, but said no one else was reported missing as of early afternoon.
Brunswick County Schools are closed to all students and staff Tuesday and there will be no virtual instruction.