VALE, N.C. — People from the Dakotas to North Carolina were dealing with the aftermath of a massive storm that roared across the country, unleashing 56 tornadoes, rain, flooding and eventually snow to some places, leaving behind plenty of destruction.
The Weather Channel's preliminary count of tornadoes totalled 42 on Tuesday and 14 on Wednesday, making it the second-largest October outbreak on record. In Oct. 2007, 62 tornadoes were recorded.
Heavy snow and strong winds battered the Dakotas for a second day Wednesday, with visibility reduced by blowing snow and roadways covered by ice, snow and slush.
"It's not good to be out here for anybody," Highway Patrol Capt. Eric Pederson said. "It's just tough going anywhere."
Conditions were improving early Thursday and fall-like weather was expected to return later this week, as the front that brought the wild ride makes its way off the East Coast.
'We didn't have time to do anything'
In North Carolina, Yolanda Corona prayed she wouldn't die when winds from the massive storm blew through her neighborhood
She was watching television with 10 relatives when the windows blew out of the living room. The chimney caved in. A tree plunged through the roof.
The family huddled in a back bedroom, whispering prayers, crying and holding each other. Somehow, they survived.
"We thought we were going to die. We were just so scared. We didn't have time to do anything. We all just listened and prayed for our lives," Jessica Vargas, Corona's 18-year-old granddaughter, recalled Wednesday.
The family's possessions had been strewn around their muddy yard the night before. No one was seriously hurt, but now the family must find somewhere to live.
The rare, fast-moving storm that destroyed their home started in the Midwest on Tuesday, moving into the southern and eastern U.S.
In suburban Chicago, Helen Miller, 41, was hurt when a branch fell about 65 feet from a large tree, crashed into her car and impaled her stomach. Doctors removed the branch and Miller's husband said she asked him to hang on to it.
"She wants to save it for an art project or something," Todd Miller told the Chicago Sun-Times. "She's a bit of a free spirit, so I ran with it."
The Weather Channel reported that at least 11 tornadoes touched down in Indiana, four in Kentucky, and eight in Ohio, including one with gusts of at least 111 mph that ripped through a village in the northwest part of the state, destroying several homes. Tornadoes were confirmed or suspected as far east as Virginia and power was out for a time to countless customers.
Pat Tanner, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C., said a cold front is moving east and meeting warm, moist air causing instability in the atmosphere and spawning the storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the storm had a pressure reading Tuesday that was among the lowest ever in a non-tropical storm in the mainland U.S.
Tornadoes whirled through Racine County, Wis., where two people were injured when a section of roof was torn off a tractor factory, and Peotone, Ill., where three people were injured when a home's roof came off.
Tornado watches and warnings were issued all across the country.
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In North Carolina, at least 11 people were hurt by the winds that destroyed Corona's home, but none seriously.
"We just thank God that everyone is safe," said Corona, who had some cuts on her leg.
Nearby, Douvhen Hanby was in his backyard when he saw the fast-moving funnel cloud head toward his house. He scrambled inside and yelled for his wife and four children to "hit the floor" in the living room. Seconds later, the house began shaking.
When the winds died down about two minutes later, the family — and their home — were more or less fine. Hanby ran to the next door to a neighbor's mobile home, which had been shredded.
He dug through the rubble with his hands, looking for the woman and four children. He found them curled up in a ball under some pieces of tin.
"They were scared, shaking. Then when it hit them they were alive, they started crying," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.