Aerial images show aftermath of North Carolina tornado that killed three people

The tornado hit just before midnight Monday, ripping open homes, flipping cars and uprooting trees in Ocean Ridge Plantation, said Ed Conrow, Brunswick County's emergency services director.

Brunswick County Emergency Management said people were trapped in homes.

The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office said officials were awaiting daybreak to sift through the rubble of damaged homes.

The massive winter storm that immobilized the Southern Plains was heading to the eastern Great Lakes and New England, where heavy snow and freezing rain was expected Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

More than 500 people were hunkering down at one shelter in Houston, but Mayor Sylvester Turner said other warming centers had to be shut down because those locations, too, lost power.

A photo provided by local law enforcement authorities shows damaged vehicles and debris left by a tornado early February 16, 2021, in Brunswick County, N.C.

"We were not expecting a storm tonight, so it came on very suddenly and I was really surprised to have a thunderstorm in the middle of the winter, unannounced", Gentle told CNN. And all I could hear was the wind, and it scared me because the floor felt like it was vibrating.

"It feels wonderful. I'm very grateful", said Harry Golen, a 19-year-old student who waited for almost four hours with his friends, much of it in the cold.

"I got my two little ones inside my master closet and my 16-year-old and I sat right outside the master closet and were shielded by my king-size four poster bed right next to the closet". Not severe weather at all. It wasn't until about two minutes after the storm passed that a tornado warning popped up on his cellphone, he said.

"I heard my dog was kind of whimpering and I got up and went in to see her".

It was late Monday night when the power went out at Jesse Clemmons' home in coastal North Carolina. "Because just a couple damn miles down the road, some of our lovely community members lost everything".

It caused "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.

About 140,000 people lived in Brunswick County in 2019, according to US Census estimates.

NWS Meteorologist Mark Willis says the twister was spawned when warm air collided with a cold front bringing ice, snow, and subzero temperatures to much of the nation. More than 250,000 people also lost power across parts of Appalachia, and another quarter-million were still without electricity following an ice storm in northwest OR, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outage reports.

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