Gary Landers/Cincinnati Enquirer, via Associated Press
The storm systems stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and were so wide that an estimated 34 million people were at risk from severe weather, said Mike Hudson of the National Weather Service regional office in Kansas City, Mo. The large path of the storm made it hard to assess the full extent of the damage. At one point, the storms were coming so fast that as many as 4 million people were within 25 miles of a tornado.
News reports and video on Saturday morning showed rescue workers and homeowners sifting through the debris, searching for victims while also trying to salvage items from the rubble. In Kentucky, the National Guard and State Police searched for an unknown number of missing, according to The Associated Press, and in Indiana, the authorities searched county roads connecting rural communities that officials said “are completely gone.”
More severe thunderstorms were expected across parts of the South on Saturday — the Florida Panhandle, southern Georgia and the Carolinas.
Although 17 states were under some kind of weather threat on Friday, the heart of the first wave of storms zeroed in on southern Indiana, northern Alabama and sections of Kentucky and Tennessee. A second round followed and was expected to hit parts of central Mississippi, northern Georgia, southern Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, a part of the country that lost 13 people to tornadoes earlier in the week.
At least 14 deaths were reported in Indiana, 14 in Kentucky and 3 in southern Ohio, according to The A.P. Local officials in several states battled rain and wind throughout the night, trying to determine how many people might have died and assessing damage from the storm.
“It’s pretty chaotic right now,” said Sgt. Noel Houze of the Indiana State Police. He said at least two people had died in the tiny town of Holton, in Ripley County. Like so many communities hit by the storm, power was out, and trees were everywhere. Schoolchildren had already gone home before the storm hit, the authorities said. Three people were reported dead in a nearby county.
“Then the gates of hell opened up,” a dispatcher said.
The culprit was a warm, moist and unseasonable air mass that reached far to the north, where it mixed with colder air, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Brooks predicted the day would be perhaps one of the top five for bad weather this year.
On CNN, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who planned to travel to the damaged southern section of the state on Saturday, said rescue workers were desperately searching through rubble in search of anyone trapped, adding, “our people are racing the nightfall.”
The tiny town of Marysville, Ind., less than an hour’s drive north of Louisville, was reported to be nearly flattened.
“We’ve had a few tornadoes come through the area, but this is the worst one we’ve seen,” said Maj. Chuck Adams of the Clark County sheriff’s office, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The signs that the storms were serious came early. The first warning went up around 9:30 a.m. By about 1:30 p.m., at least 12 tornadoes had touched down in three states. One of them was Alabama, which lost 272 people in one day last April. Dozens of those deaths came in the same rural slice of northern Alabama hit hard on Friday.
Greg Cook and his wife, Brenda Collier, live a couple of miles from where a deadly tornado ripped through in 2011. This year, it was their turn. Their house was destroyed. They were not home at the time, but their Labrador retriever mix, Coco, was. They found the dog wet and shivering in a roofless hallway.
“Those storms last year scared the hell out of everybody,” Mr. Cook said. “This year, everybody was ready. They were scared. They were watching weather on TV, listening to weather on the radio, calling friends and family and telling them where the tornadoes hit.”
Across the Midwest and the South, reports of damage big and small kept pouring in. The Limestone Correctional Facility in northern Alabama took a “direct hit,” an apparent tornado ripping holes in the roofs of two dormitories where 500 inmates lived and knocking down security fences, said Brian Corbett, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. The prison lost power and switched to generators. No one was hurt or escaped, he said.
A marina was destroyed northeast of Chattanooga and at least 20 homes were ripped from their foundations and dozens of people were hurt, county emergency services workers said. Winds tore through Nashville and Knoxville. Hail the size of golf balls, tennis balls and softballs were reported in several states.
Administrators at a hospital in Louisville spent part of the evening trying to find the family of a little girl — blond hair and blue eyes and perhaps as old as 3 — who was found injured in a field in Salem, Ind., apparently carried there by the storm. By 8 p.m., she was identified and her family was on its way to the hospital from Washington County, Ind., a nursing officer said.
At Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, operations were halted for an hour after storm debris littered the runways, a spokeswoman said. A trampoline was found in a tree in Cleveland, Tenn.