A wave of severe thunderstorms laced with tornadoes blasted the South on Wednesday, killing at least 72 people in four states and splintering buildings across swaths of an Alabama university town.
In Alabama alone, 58 people were killed Wednesday, including 15 in the hard-hit college town of Tuscaloosa.
Eleven deaths were reported in Mississippi, two in Georgia and one in Tennessee.
News footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened Tuscaloosa home, with many neighboring buildings in the city of more than 83,000 also reduced to rubble. A hospital there said its emergency room had admitted at least 100 people.
"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Mayor Walter Maddox told reporters, adding that he expected his city's death toll to rise.
The storm system spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Georgia, and it was forecast to hit the Carolinas next and then move further northeast.
In the Tuscaloosa area, traffic was snarled Wednesday night by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians. University officials said that there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus and that they were using the student recreation center as a shelter.
Maddox said that authorities were having trouble communicating and that 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed across the state.
Brian Sanders, manager of an oil change shop, brought his daughters to DCH Regional Medical Center because he felt they'd be safe there. He said his business had been leveled. "I can't believe we walked away," he said.
Storms struck Birmingham earlier in the day, felling numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas.
Austin Ransdell and a friend had to hike out of their neighborhood south of Birmingham after the house where he was living was crushed by four trees. No one was hurt.
"The house was destroyed. We couldn't stay in it. Water pipes broke; it was flooding the basement," he said. "We had people coming in telling us another storm was coming in about four or five hours, so we just packed up."
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office.
In Choctaw County, Miss., a police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweet gum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisor with the National Park Service. The girl wasn't hurt.