One of the hardest hit areas was Mississippi's Yazoo County, where Gov. Haley Barbour grew up. He described "utter obliteration" among the picturesque hills rising abruptly from the flat Mississippi Delta.
More than 15 other counties in Mississippi also had damage. The swath of debris forced rescuers to pick up some of the injured on all-terrain vehicles the west-central part of the state. Tornadoes were also reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, and the severe weather continued to track eastward.
In Yazoo City, Malcolm Gordon, 63, stood with members of his family peering out at the neighborhood through a broken window.
Above them, the roof was gone, a tree lay across part of the house and power lines stretched across the yard. The smell of shredded pine trees hung in the warm breeze in the neighborhood of modest houses and mobile homes surrounded by hills and ravines.
Gordon and his wife, Diane, hid in a closet while much of the neighborhood was blown away.
"I'll just bulldoze what's left and start over," he said.
It was one of several unlikely survival stories to emerge from the destruction.
Essie Hendrix, manager of Peebles department store in Yazoo City, said she and other employees were inside with about 15 customers when the tornado struck. An assistant manager took the customers to the back of the store, and Hendrix saw the tornado barreling through the parking lot. She huddled between a safe and a sturdy desk to avoid flying glass and debris.
"It was like a rumbling and a roaring and stuff was falling," Hendrix said. "It sounded like it was going to suck us out of there. It lasted about two minutes, but it felt like it lasted an hour."
No one in the store was injured.
About 100 yards away, the owner of Ribeye's Steak House said everyone ran into a walk-in freezer to safety when they saw the tornado.
"The roof was caving in, TVs flying off the shelves and it was horrible," Mitchell Saxton said. "... We got in the walk-in freezer, sat in there for about ten minutes. When I came out it was really bad. Just thanking the good Lord I'm here and able to talk with you all."
Saxton's restaurant was destroyed but no one was hurt.
The severe weather started in Louisiana, just across the state line from Mississippi when a tornado destroyed 12 homes and warehouses at Complex Chemical Co., which makes antifreeze and other automotive fluids, owner Jerry Melton said. A small nitrogen leak was reported but didn't cause any problems.
The storm system moved east, with the twister hitting nearby Yazoo County, Miss., killing four people. In adjacent Holmes County, another person was killed. A little farther northeast, a tornado hit Choctaw County, where another five victims were reported, including children ages 3 months, 9 and 14.
Authorities in Choctow County were going house-to-house in the areas with the worst damage to check for any injured.
Meteorologists said it was too soon to tell whether a single long-lasting tornado - or multiple shorter ones - caused the death and damage in the different cities.
In Yazoo City, stunned residents stood on a hill overlooking the destruction. A National Guard helicopter sat nearby, and later took the governor on an aerial tour of the town.
"Sad, man," said 22-year-old Rafael Scott, shaking his head. "It's really hard to believe it. I heard they found a couple of bodies."
Three broken crosses stood near a flattened church, and religious materials were scattered among twisted steel, broken wood and furniture. A nearby funeral home was reduced to rubble. In a patch of woods, pieces of tin were twisted high up in the broken trees.
Josh Nicholson, 26, was driving home through the storm with his wife, 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter when a power line fell across the road in front their sport utility vehicle.
"There was nowhere we could go," he said.
Nicholson and his wife took the children out of their car seats and they all huddled in the back of the vehicle. All of the sudden, Nicholson said, the vehicle spun around and a tree clipped part of the truck where the 4-year-old had been sitting. Luckily, nobody was hurt.
"It was scary," Nicholson said.
Thousands across the state were without electricity, and downed power lines and trees blocked roads. At least four people had been brought by four-wheeler to a triage center at an old discount store parking lot, Yazoo City Mayor McArthur Straughter said as sirens whined in the background.
Jim Pollard, a spokesman for American Medical Response ambulance service, said four patients from Yazoo County were airlifted and some 20 others were taken to hospitals. At least four people were in critical condition.
Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, who pitched on Friday, was returning to Mississippi after a tornado damaged his parents' home in Weir, Miss.
Willie M. Horton, 78, said he hunkered down in the hallway of his house in Holmes County, which borders Yazoo. "Everything is down. A lot of trees. Big trees," Horton said.
He said his sister-in-law's house nearby was damaged, and a nephew's mobile home was carried away by the storm.
"My cousin - half his barn is gone," Horton said.
The weather hampered crews trying to clean up an oil spill after an offshore rig exploded earlier this week off the coast of Louisiana. Several sporting events and festivals also were rescheduled.
Associated Press writers Jack Elliot Jr. in Jackson, Maria Burnham in French Camp, Jackie Quinn in Washington, Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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