A string of violent storms from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes scratched away small towns and cut off rural communities as an early season tornado outbreak killed more than 30 people, and the death toll rose as daylight broke on Saturday's search for survivors.
Massive thunderstorms, predicted by forecasters for days, threw off dozens of tornadoes, hitting the states of Kentucky and Indiana particularly hard. Twisters that crushed entire blocks of homes knocked out cellphones and landlines alike, ripped power lines from broken poles and tossed cars, school buses and tractor-trailers onto roadways made impassable by debris.
Weather that put millions of people at risk Friday killed 31, but both the scale of the devastation and the breadth of the storms made an immediate assessment of the havoc's full extent all but impossible.
In Kentucky, the National Guard and state police headed out to search wreckage for an unknown number of missing. In Indiana, authorities searched dark county roads connecting rural communities that officials said "are completely gone".
Susie Renner, 54, said she saw two tornadoes barreling down on the town of Henryville, Kentucky, within minutes of each other. The first was brown from being filled with debris; the second was black.
"I'm a storm chaser," Renner said, "and I have never been this frightened before".
Friday's outbreak came two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and forecasters at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level.
By 10 pm, the weather service had issued 269 tornado warnings. Only 189 warnings were issued in all of February.
A total of 14 people were reported killed in Indiana. Tony Williams, owner of the Chelsea General Store in the town of Chelsea said a child and mother were huddled in a basement when the storm hit and sucked the 4-year-old out her hands. The mother survived, but her 70-year-old grandparents were upstairs; both died.
Two people also died further north in the town of Holton, where it appeared a tornado cut a diagonal swath down the town's tiny main drag, demolishing a cinderblock gas station in one spot and leaving a tiny white church intact down the road. Officials also confirmed seven other deaths.
The death toll rose to at least 14 in Kentucky. In West Liberty, Stephen Burton heard the twister coming and pulled his 23-year-old daughter to safety, just before the tornado destroyed the second story of the family's home.
"I just held onto her and I felt like I was getting sand-blasted on my back," Burton said.
Kentucky State Police in Morehead said three people were dead in West Liberty and at least 75 were injured.
"All of the downtown area was just devastated," he said. Samu said West Liberty's hospital was damaged in the storm and some patients were being transferred to area hospitals.
Officials were having difficulty getting into the area to confirm the damage.
"We can't even get into some of these counties," said Kentucky Emergency Management spokesman Buddy Rogers. "The power is out, phones are out, roads are blocked and now it's dark, which complicates things".