The terrified look in one of her employee’s eyes was the first clue Terri Rodriguez had that something was terribly wrong Saturday afternoon.
The worker had been washing kitchen equipment behind Golden Corral, a popular restaurant in Sanford, N.C., when he spotted a giant black funnel cloud bearing down.
It was one of more than 90 tornadoes — what one meteorologist described as a “family” of them — that hit the state on Saturday.
He ran to Ms. Rodriguez, who walked out the back door. She dodged a piece of flying wood, and then she saw it: a dark funnel cloud thick with wood and metal only a couple of blocks away.
About 140 people were eating in her restaurant, many of them in front of the thick plate-glass windows that run the length of the place.
“All I could think is that I have to get them away from the glass because I knew it would just cut them in half,” she said in an interview on Sunday.
“I thought, where can I put them? Then I yelled: ‘Tornado! Everyone to my kitchen!’ ”
People packed into the meat cooler and behind the stoves. Others jammed into the restrooms. Then they waited. After five minutes, Ms. Rodriguez said, the darkness lifted and she peeked out the back door.
The tornado, she said, had bounced up, skipped the Golden Corral and made a sharp turn, setting down on top of a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center a few hundred feet away.
“I could see the roof was just gone and all of the Lowe’s stuff flying up in the air,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
The Lowe’s store in Sanford, a town of about 29,000 in the center of the state, was essentially demolished. But an estimated 70 customers were saved when another fast-thinking manager herded customers and his staff into a windowless storeroom.
The storm killed at least two people in the Sanford area and injured several more, according to Sheriff Tracy Carter of Lee County.
A string of tornadoes that began Thursday night in Oklahoma left of a trail of death and millions of dollars in damage from the middle of America to the Eastern Seaboard.
But they reached their zenith on Saturday night in North Carolina. Officials said the storms killed at least 43 people and injured hundreds more. No damage estimates were immediately available, but they will most certainly run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Although April and May are the worst time for tornadoes in the South, this storm system, which had its roots in the Pacific Ocean, was unusual for its size and duration, officials said.
The storm would calm itself a bit at night and then gain renewed strength with the day’s heat, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It brought flash floods, tornadoes and thunderstorms laced with giant balls of hail to Oklahoma on Thursday, killing two elderly sisters, before moving east through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia.
The effects from the storms could be felt as far as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the New York City area on Saturday night, when furious wind-driven rains covered roadways and produced isolated flooding.
When the system hit North Carolina on Saturday night, it spawned a record 92 tornadoes in the state, killing at least 22 people and injuring more than 80 others.
At least 14 deaths were in Bertie and Hertford Counties, in a rural northeast corner of the state where cotton, tobacco, peanuts, corn and soybeans anchor the economy.
“Normally the storms that hit here are pretty severe but smaller in size,” said Cal Bryant, the editor of The Roanoke-Chowan News Herald, which serves a part of North Carolina that was most severely hit.
“Now they are thinking it may have been one big tornado. They’re trying to find where it stopped, and they haven’t got there yet.” Mr. Bryant, who spent Sunday with survivors in Bertie County, said rescue crews were going house to house looking for dead or injured residents and assessing damage.
At least 60 houses, some of them mobile homes, were destroyed, and he expected the count to go higher.
Scott Sharp, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, said the devastation was due to “a family of tornadoes” that were part of the same thunderstorm system, with one rotating updraft cropping up after another had dissipated.
Still, the storm was not as bad as something meteorologists call “Super Tuesday,” when a string of tornadoes in February 2008 claimed 56 lives, said Mr. Carbin of NOAA. But it was unusual in that all of the weather stemmed from one huge storm.
But for many of the states that lay in the path of this system, including North Carolina, which had not seen such severe weather since the early 1990s, it was a storm that will most likely takes months to recover from.
Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina, like governors in three other Southern states, declared a state of emergency on Sunday.
Twelve teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive in North Carolina by Monday. The agency is also sending teams to Mississippi and Alabama, said Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokeswoman.
In Raleigh, a city of 400,000, major avenues downtown were blocked by fallen trees. Buildings were flattened in at least eight areas of Wake County, said Sarah Williamson-Baker, a spokeswoman for the county.
Three siblings, who ranged in age from 2 to 5, were killed in a mobile home park in Raleigh when a tree fell on their home. The three were in a bathtub, according to a local news report.
The tornado seemed to make a direct cut through the area, Ms. Williamson-Baker said. “There’s many places where there’s little left of buildings, and then in other places nearby, there’s almost no damage,” she said.
Elizabeth Strauch, 41, lives in the Cranberry Ridge subdivision in Wilson, N.C. Her house was destroyed. When she heard the tornado, she ran to a closet with her cat and some personal belongings.
“What I thought was a tree falling down on the house was my roof falling down and the attic falling through,” she said.
She opened the door of her closet, pushed back the debris and ran to her neighbors. The whole thing lasted about three minutes. “I thought I was going to die,” Ms. Strauch said. “I was hysterical.”
Near Raleigh, dormitories and classrooms at Shaw University, the oldest historically black university in the South, were so damaged that classes were canceled for the rest of the semester.
“After an assessment by experts, I will determine if summer school can be held on campus or will be available only online,” the university president, Irma McClaurin, said in a statement.
“I think we are blessed that despite tremendous structural damages to dormitories and the Willie Gary Student Union that not one single person (student, faculty, staff or community members) was injured. We can all give thanks for that.” In Sanford, many were grateful, too.
John Douglas, 42, a contractor, was inside a tractor supply store when the tornado ripped the roof from the building. He and a friend jumped on top of his daughter Abby, 9, as part of the ceiling fell on top of them.
He suffered a few minor scrapes and bruises, but they all walked away otherwise unhurt.
“Everything was flying around inside the store. You could see the sky through the roof,” Mr. Douglas said. “We just prayed to the Lord to help us through this.”
Around the parts of the Southern states that were hardest hit, volunteers began organizing food drives and fund-raisers. Many people were connecting through Facebook and Twitter, and others were simply showing up to see how they might help.
In Sanford, the Salvation Army thrift store opened its doors at 3 p.m. and two hours later had already accepted about 400 bags of clothes and household goods, said Derek Oley, 29, the manager.
They will start supplying food to people Monday.
“This community is just so awesome right now,” Mr. Oley said. “People are just coming out from everywhere to help out.”
Robbie Brown contributed reporting from Atlanta, Tarini Parti from Raleigh, N.C., and Joseph Berger from New York.