Death toll climbs after severe storms in U.S. South

The death toll reached 12 Thursday after thunderstorms and tornadoes cut a swathe through the southern United States, while thousands of people remained without power.

The death toll reached 12 Thursday afterthunderstorms and tornadoes cut a swathe through the southern United States, while thousands of people remained without power.

Several states have been battered by the storms, which began Wednesday, unleashing tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned mobile homes and tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines.

A tornado killed at least seven people in Riegelwood, N.C., on Thursday,while two other people in the state were reported to have died in car crashes that were blamed on the storms.

Another person died when a tornado struck his home in Louisiana while a utility worker checking power lines during the storm was electrocuted in South Carolina, officials said.

Mobile homes 'blown off their foundations'

In Riegelwood, a tiny community on the Cape Fear River about 35 kilometres west of Wilmington, a tornado destroyed dozens of mobile homes as it ripped throughearly Thursday morning.

By midday, searchers had found seven bodies in the wreckage.

"That number very well may go up," warned Kip Godwin, the spokesman for the emergency management office in Columbus County.

Godwin said emergency crews were using heavy machinery to clear the debris in their search for survivors, but those on the scene said little remained of the homes.

"When a tornado hits a mobile home, it's probably much more devastating," Godwin said. "Most of these homes were blown off their foundations and are now just piles of debris."

Twenty people were taken to hospitals in Columbus County and neighbouring New Hanover County with storm-related injuries that ranged from "severe to not as severe," Gov. Mike Easley told a news conference.

At that time, four people still hadn't been found.

Ron Steve, a meteorologist with the weather service in Wilmington, said the tornado struck at about 6:30 a.m. ET.

"The one really intense cell at that time of the morning moved onshore near the state line and as it got over land within a few minutes, it delivered a very strong circulation that put down a tornado," Steve said.

The storms were expected to clear out of the area by Thursday afternoon.

With files from the Associated Press