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Storms leave major clean-up job in Charlotte region

Four people are dead and tens of thousands of customers remained without power Friday evening, 24 hours after powerful thunderstorms raced across North Carolina.

The storms blew trees on houses and other buildings, dropped hail the size of ping pong balls, and were responsible for several lightning-caused fires.

Two men died in Wilkes County, including a volunteer firefighter who was electrocuted while responding to a storm-related incident. One woman was killed in a Stanly County collision at an intersection where power reportedly was out.

Crews from Duke Energy and other electric companies worked lengthy shifts Thursday night and Friday and trimmed the number of power outages from 89,000 at daybreak to about 60,000 in the early evening. But nearly 17,000 customers in eight counties near Charlotte were still without power in the late afternoon.

Damage was spread across more than a dozen counties, and utility companies called in help from surrounding areas to deal with blown transformers, downed lines and snapped power poles. Winds had gusted to more than 60 mph in places.

Electric company officials said some customers probably won’t get their power back until later in the weekend.

The fast-moving lines of thunderstorms formed late Thursday morning in Kentucky and roared to the southeast. As the line moved into North Carolina, the storms strengthened while encountering 90-degree-plus heat and high humidity.

Many of those without power watched Friday as crews tried to repair what nature had turn apart.

A four-man Duke Energy line crew was working at mid-afternoon in a neighborhood off Harris Houston Road in north Charlotte, where several hundred homes were without power. The culprit: a large limb that had fallen on a high tension line and blown a transformer.

“If the transformer is OK, we can have this job finished in an hour,” said Scott Whitley, who oversees the safety of workers on repair duties. “But if the transformer is bad, it’ll be another couple hours. We’ll have to pull the new transformer back here into these woods, pull it up the pole, and replace the old one.”

About a dozen neighbors watched the drama play out. One man yelled up to a lineman, “What do you think?”

It was too early to tell, but 15 minutes later, the verdict was in. It wasn’t good news for the neighborhood.

“That transformer is leaking,” said Keith Meza, a lineman with 26 years’ experience. “We’ll have to replace it. That means another couple hours.”

When given the news, one woman sighed: “Another couple hours.”

The number of outages in Mecklenburg County fell from around 6,200 Friday morning to 2,700 by late afternoon.

It was a more serious issue elsewhere.

In Wilkes County, Tony Barker, a 36-year-old member of the Mountain View Volunteer Fire Department, was electrocuted while answering a call. And 77-year-old Maurice Kilby was killed by a falling tree in the Mountain View area.

A woman was struck and killed by a tree in Chapel Hill, according to the Associated Press.

And in Albemarle, Jessica Fesperman of Rockwell in Rowan County died when her minivan collided with a tractor-trailer about 4:15 a.m. at U.S. 52 and N.C. 24/27. Authorities said Friday morning that power was out in the area at the time. Albemarle police Capt. Jesse Huneycutt said Friday afternoon that the investigation is continuing.

Three other people in Fesperman’s vehicle were injured. The truck driver, a man from Sanford, was not hurt.

Officials in Stanly County also reported one injury from a falling tree.

The American Red Cross opened emergency shelters for displaced residents in Stanly and neighboring Montgomery counties.

No injuries were reported in Mecklenburg County.

But it was a frightening evening for many.

Drivers on Interstate 485 in southeast Mecklenburg County sought shelter under overpasses when large hail started falling. Motorists who weren’t able to get under a bridge were left with dented vehicles.

As the skies darkened shortly before 6 p.m., members of St. John Neumann Catholic Church on Idlewild Road in east Charlotte scrambled to take down tents that were set up in advance for SonFest, a two-day festival opening Friday evening. No significant damage was reported.

A short distance to the east, it was a different story.

Strong winds knocked out power across Matthews and Mint Hill. Police from the two cities were forced to direct traffic for several hours at busy intersections along East Independence Boulevard, Idlewild Road, and N.C. 51.

A blown transformer in the Southwoods community of Matthews, near Idlewild Road and N.C. 51, started a fire in a wooded area. The Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department quickly responded, but it was Friday afternoon before power was restored.

Immediately after the storm, there were about 200,000 power outages in North Carolina, most of those affecting Duke Energy customers. By Friday afternoon, Duke was reporting outages in Cabarrus County (2,300), Catawba County (1,600), Gaston County (900), Rowan County (3,500), Stanly County (4,000) and Union County (2,100). Fewer than 100 outages were reported in Lincoln County.

Union Electric Corp. was faring well. Its crews cut the number of outages from nearly 8,000 at 6 a.m. Friday to about 3,000 by early afternoon. Carrie Stroud a spokeswoman for the electric cooperative, said the hardest-hit areas were Harrisburg and Mount Pleasant in Cabarrus County; the Locust area in western Stanly County; and in northern Union County.

She said several thousand customers lost power when a transmission line in Cabarrus County suffered significant damage during the storm.

And EnergyUnited reported about 16,000 storm-related outages, mostly in Iredell County and in Madison County in the N.C. mountains. By early afternoon, that number was cut to about 4,500, mostly in Iredell County.

“Our crews worked through the night,” EnergyUnited CEO H. Wayne Wilkins said. “We are still on target for a Friday evening time frame for the restoration of power to the majority of our members.”

Wilkins and Stroud said their companies were getting help from nearby electric cooperatives.

Wilkins, for example, said 40 crews worked during the night, including 15 crews from neighboring electric cooperatives, six contract crews and 10 tree service crews.

The Red Cross opened shelters at Albemarle High School in Stanly County and at Page Road Elementary School in Montgomery County. The shelters were opened after emergency management officials in both counties said dozens of families had been displaced by storm damage – most of that caused by falling trees.

In Stanly County, a two-vehicle crash about 4:30 a.m. at N.C. 24/27 and U.S. 52 in Albemarle was blamed on malfunctioning traffic signals. Two people suffered serious injuries, authorities said.

Lyttle: 704 358-6107
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