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

EMILY FLAX/BRUNSWICK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE/The New York Times News Service

An apparent tornado killed three people and injured 10 others as it struck a coastal North Carolina town, authorities said. It was spawned along the edge of the same weather system bringing bitterly cold temperatures to much of the nation.

“The sky lit up and there was a lot of pop-pop-popping. And the loud thunder. And then it sounded like a train, a freight train coming through. The roar of a freight train. That’s when all the damage occurred,” Sharon Benson, who lives in the neighbourhood, said by phone.

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. Dozens of other homes were damaged by the “fierce tornado,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a tweet.

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Photos distributed by the sheriff’s office showed first responders walking through a debris field of uprooted trees and crumpled piles of boards and bricks in the golf course community.

It caused “a lot of destruction. It’s going to be a long recovery process,” Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram told reporters.

Benson, 63, said her roof was damaged, the garage door was blown off, windows were shattered and nearby trees were uprooted. She was meeting Tuesday with an insurance representative to discuss repairs. She said her neighbours also sustained heavy damage.

She said she was surprised to hear heavy winds and thunder and see intense lightning just before midnight Monday.

“They said it was going to rain. Not severe weather at all. No forewarning,” she said.

Mark Willis, meteorologist in charge for The National Weather Service’s office in nearby Wilmington, said the same cold front bringing freezing temperatures, ice and snow from Canada to Mexico created conditions favourable to tornadoes in North Carolina, where it pushed up against a warm front from the Gulf of Mexico.

A weather service team will survey the damage and confirm that a tornado did indeed touch down, Willis said.

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Steve McCreedy, 69, said by phone that he and his wife were awakened by their dog and dove into a closet as they heard their windows shattering and trees snapping outside.

“I heard my dog was kind of whimpering and I got up and went in to see her. And all of a sudden I just started hearing the rumbling, like they say, the train getting louder and louder,” he said.

“So I yelled to my wife, and we have an interior closet that we have designated as the place to go when something like that happens. And we dove in there. As soon as that happened, we had glass shattering and the trees were breaking.”

He said that he has a weather radio to keep them informed of threats, and while he said he was aware severe thunderstorms were possible, he was never alerted to the possibility of a tornado until the weather was upon them.

He said he’s got a generator to keep their refrigerator going, and feels fortunate the damage wasn’t worse. He said his neighbour’s home was “levelled.”

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