Videos from the affected area of Brunswick County showed houses ripped from their foundations, heaps of debris, snapped trees and uprooted power lines.
The tornado hit just before midnight on Monday with winds estimated at 160 mph, arriving as a severe winter storm continues to hammer the US.
The worst destruction was caused in the Ocean Ridge Plantation beach community, according to ABC11 News, with some suffering serious injuries in addition to the death toll of three.
Many were trapped in their homes overnight and emergency responders reached the spot to search for missing people on Tuesday. Ed Conrow, director of Brunswick County Emergency Management, said there were no outstanding missing people.
“Last night's tornado in Brunswick County has been rated as a high-end EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita damage scale with winds estimated at 160 mph,” National Weather Service Wilmington, NC said.
“It's something unlike I have ever seen before. A lot of destruction. It's going to be a long recovery process,” Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram said.
Eyewitnesses told reporters that debris kept flying in circles as the lights went out. They could only see what was happening when lightening struck. One said they saw a trailer moving off the ground due to the force of the wind.
The tornado was part of a larger weather pattern that has brought freezing temperatures to the US, causing mass power outages in Texas and weather warnings across southern states. More freezing rain is expected in several areas, including Alamance, Durham, Granville and Orange counties.
The winter storm overwhelmed the southwestern power grid and affected more than 4 million homes and businesses on Tuesday.
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