By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - The death toll from three days of severe storms and tornadoes in the southern United States rose to at least 39 on Sunday, with hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed in North Carolina alone, weather and emergency officials said.
North Carolina accounted for the bulk of casualties and property losses reported by state officials -- 22 people killed and more than 80 others injured, some of them severely, as significant damage mounted in at least 15 counties.
Seven additional deaths reported since Thursday in four other states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma -- brought the overall death toll from the storms to 39.
"I would expect that total to rise, unfortunately," AccuWeather.com meteorologist Andy Mussoline told Reuters on Sunday.
North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency on Saturday night, and a dozen counties declared local states of emergency.
Statewide, high winds destroyed 60 homes and damaged 400 others, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.
Bertie County in northeastern North Carolina was one of the hardest-hit areas, with 14 storm-related deaths reported there by the National Weather Service. The weather bureau confirmed at least eight tornadoes throughout the state on Saturday.
"Many communities have downed trees, downed power lines and a significant amount of debris on the roadways," Doug Hoell, the head of the Emergency Management Division, said late Saturday.
Progress Energy, the main utility in eastern North Carolina, said other counties bearing the brunt of the storms were Lee, Harnett and Wake, which includes Raleigh, the state capital.
Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes said as of 9 a.m. Sunday, the utility had 78,000 homes and businesses still without power.
At the peak of the storm at about 4 p.m. Saturday, Hughes said 220,000 customers were without electricity. He said 1,000 utility workers were out making repairs and that most customers should have their power restored by midnight Monday.
Hughes said the storms snapped hundreds of power poles, and 30 transmission structures were damaged. In some areas of Harnett and Cumberland counties, tornadoes swept up poles and wires and dropped them somewhere else, he said.
"There are some parts where a tornado took the utility structure away and we cannot find it," Hughes said. "So they're literally having to build from the ground up."
The deadly storms began in Oklahoma on Thursday night and moved through the Deep South on Friday and on to the East Coast on Saturday.
Weather experts said the storm system was the most intense so far this spring. Mussoline said on Sunday that 241 tornadoes were reported over three days with 50 twisters confirmed.
On Friday, seven people died in Alabama, seven in Arkansas and one in Mississippi. Two people were killed on Thursday night when a tornado flattened buildings in the town of Tushka, Oklahoma.
Preliminary data indicated it was the deadliest storm since February 2008, when 57 people died in an outbreak of tornadoes in the Deep South and Ohio Valley, Mussoline said.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Wendell Marsh and Steve Gorman)