Calm weather gave dazed residents of storm-wracked towns a respite early on Sunday as they dug out from a chain of tornadoes that cut a swath of destruction from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, killing at least 39 people.
The fast-moving twisters spawned by massive thunderstorms splintered blocks of homes, damaged schools and a prison, and tossed around vehicles like toys, killing 20 people in Kentucky, 14 in neighbouring Indiana, three in Ohio and one in Alabama, officials said. Georgia also reported a storm-related death.
We're not unfamiliar with Mother Nature's wrath out here in Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels told CNN during a visit to the stricken southeast corner of the state.
But this is about as serious as we've seen in the years since I've been in this job, he said, standing against the backdrop of the hard-hit town of Henryville, which declared a nighttime curfew to prevent looting.
Friday's storms came on top of severe weather earlier in the week in the Midwest and brought the overall death toll from the unseasonably early storms this week to at least 52 people.
Tornadoes smashed Indiana and Kentucky hard, with Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee overrun as well. But the National Weather Service forecast a mild morning for the hardest hit areas on Sunday, with rain or snow possible in some areas.
President Barack Obama called the governors of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to offer condolences and assure them the federal government was ready to help if needed, the White House said.
Television footage from Indiana and Kentucky showed houses ripped from their foundations, trees downed and stripped of their foliage, and rubble scattered across wide stretches of land.
In Georgia, light planes were lifted off the tarmac of a regional airport in Paulding County and thrown back on the ground. In Indiana, a school bus was slammed into a building.
Clean-up crews worked to move downed power lines and clear debris, and residents began putting tarps over torn apart homes to prevent further damage. Meanwhile, the more fortunate brought donations including diapers, blankets and food to area churches.
That's what people do. It's no biggie. It's because we care. They are our neighbours, said Brenda Parson as she brought a carload of donations to the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Henryville.
TODDLER HURT BUT ALIVE
In one sign of hope amid the destruction, a 2-year-old girl, orphaned by the tornado, was found alive but badly hurt in a field in southeast Indiana miles from her home after a twister cut through the area, authorities said.
The toddler, who remained in critical condition in a Kentucky hospital, was with members of her extended family. But her parents, a 2-month-old sister and a 3-year-old brother, were all killed, said Cis Gruebbel, a spokeswoman for Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville.
When she was brought down here, they didn't know who she was, said Brian Rublein, another Kosair spokesman.
In Henryville, birthplace of Harland David Colonel Sanders, who founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food chain, ground zero for the storm was a downtown complex housing an elementary, junior high and high school.
Nearly all its students were evacuated on Friday before the tornado struck. But about 40 staff and students who were the last to leave on school buses turned back when they saw ominous signs of the approaching storm in the sky.
They took shelter in an elementary school office to ride out the tornado, even as it ripped the front off the building, leaving a dangling mess of twisted metal and insulation. Only one resident of the town died, rescue officials said.
We could have been in big trouble, said Pam Horton, the elementary school treasurer. I will never take tornado warnings lightly again.
This week's violent storms raised fears that 2012 will be another bad year for tornadoes after 550 deaths in the United States were blamed on twisters last year, the deadliest year in nearly a century, according to the National Weather Service.
In the northern Kentucky town of Crittenden, where tornadoes ripped roofs off houses and damaged apartment blocks, low-security prisoners in orange jackets were brought in to help with clean-up efforts.
In another hard-hit Kentucky town, 48-year-old carpenter Kevin Stambaugh described how he survived a twister that killed his two neighbours, who he said were found dead huddled together in their kitchen. He said he also lost 25 horses in the storm.
The Lord was looking out for me, he told Reuters outside a church in the town of Morning View, adding that wind had pushed him down the stairs to his basement and pinned him between a bar and a wall. The windows were shattered and shards of glass were swirling around near my head.
At least 300 people came to the Piner Baptist Church, advertised as a relief centre, to volunteer after the storm.
Being from here, born and raised, the hardest thing is knowing that the houses I grew up seeing every day are gone. There are no words, said volunteer Amy Heeger, 38, who works for a car auction company but headed for the church to help out.
(Additonal reporting by Susan Guyett, David Adams, Tom Brown, Ian Simpson, Karen Brooks, John Stoll and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Peter Bohan and Jackie Frank)