Thousands were still without power Thursday across the Southeast after severe storms killed at least six people, including a 3-year-old and her grandmother, tore through dozens of homes and had survivors talking about how close they came to death.
With the latest deaths, the number of tornado fatalities for 2011 will likely top 550, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.
This year already ranks as the deadliest from tornadoes since the National Weather Service began its database in 1950, he said.
"The number of fatalities this year directly due to tornadoes is 100 times greater than the recent decades' annual average," Carbin said.
Preliminary reports indicate at least 25 twisters hit Southern states between Tuesday and Wednesday, Carbin said. Reports came from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Five of the deaths were in the Carolinas. In Davidson County, N.C., a 50-year-old woman and her 3-year-old granddaughter were killed in their home by what locals suspect was a tornado. No one else was in the home at the time the storm hit Wednesday evening.
Neighbors found the girl's body buried under debris about 25 feet from where the home had been and later placed an American flag at the spot. All that was left of the home was the foundation.
The storms in that area left at trail of debris that stretched for at least 7 miles, with nearly a dozen people taken to hospitals.
Suspected tornadoes were also reported Wednesday in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. Severe weather also hit Georgia, where one person died near Atlanta when a tree fell on his car.
In South Carolina, three people were killed and five injured when a likely tornado swept through a rural community near Rock Hill.
Henry Taylor said he was home watching television with his wife when he saw a tornado warning flash on the screen. A minute later, he saw a funnel cloud out his window.
"It looked like the 'Wizard of Oz,'" said Taylor, 50. "It was surreal, and for a moment, a split second, you say to yourself 'This ain't real,' then reality sets in, and you know it is."
Taylor said he and his wife sought refuge in a closet as the storm roared outside.
"I held my wife closely in the closet and I prayed. I said, 'Oh my God, this is it. I'm going to be buried in the debris. We're going to die,'" Taylor said.
But as quickly as the tornado hit, the winds dissipated. Taylor said part of his roof was torn off, windows were blown out, and trees had been snapped in two, but he and his wife were unharmed.
"I guess it wasn't our time," he said, wiping back tears at his home Thursday. "I guess God helped us."
that search crews in the area were heading back out Thursday morning to look for anyone who still might be unaccounted for.
'Dogs beat the door down'Power crews were on scene and had began the process of restoring power to customers, WCNC reported.
Local resident John Hatfield said his dogs had raised the alarm as the storms whipped up.
"It was raining pretty hard and my dogs beat the door down and as soon as we let them in we felt the house shake, big rumble, suddenly got wet, the power went out, started flashing," he told WCNC.
When he came out he saw nothing but devastation, the station reported. A car flipped on its roof in his neighbor's yard. Another buried under trees.
"That's the most disturbing part, seeing that child's car seat sitting by the road, not knowing what kids were injured or people were hurt," Hatfield added.
Simone Moore told The Herald newspaper that she was sitting on her back porch when she saw the tornado touch down and then quickly move back up. She said after the storm passed, she noticed a nearby trailer had vanished.
"Everything's gone," Moore said. "Even the cows in the pasture."
In eastern Alabama, a suspected twister splintered trees and demolished mobile homes at a pair of housing parks near the Auburn University campus. Less than seven months ago, a massive tornado roared past the campus of archrival University of Alabama in the western part of the state.
It was the worst bout of weather for the state since about 250 people were killed during the tornado outbreak in April. Both campuses were spared major damage this time.
Auburn University graduate student Staci DeGeer didn't have any doubts about what sent a pair of trees crashing through her mobile home at Ridgewood Village.
"It's tornado damage. I'm from Kansas; I know tornado damage," said DeGeer, who wasn't home at the time. "It's kind of hit or miss. There will be two or three (trailers) that are bad and then a few that are OK."
DeGeer's dog Jack rode out the storm in her mobile home without injury, but the trailer itself didn't fare as well.
"It looks like I redecorated with a wilderness theme. There are trees through my house," she said.
A similar scene occurred in southeastern Mississippi, where some people were briefly trapped in their homes as trees fell on them. Mobile homes were tossed off their foundations. In all, 15 people were hurt in the area.
Forecasters said a cold front stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast was to blame. Temperatures dropped in some areas from the low 70s to the 50s as the front passed, and winds gusted to near 30 mph.
"Typically we see our severe weather season during the spring months, but we also have a secondary peak in November," said Neil Dixon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"In November, we see strong cold fronts," he said. "These strong cold fronts move along from the western Carolinas, and the strong wind shear moves ahead of that."
'Edge of the chair'Damage was reported in several parts of Alabama. In Sumter County, in the west-central part of the state, an elderly woman was in her home as a tree crashed into it. She had to be taken to the hospital.
In Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, the day was a harsh reminder of the threat of violent weather for communities still recovering from killer tornadoes earlier this year.
"It makes you sit up on the edge of the chair a little more," said Tom Perryman, who works for the school system in Tuscaloosa County, which was hard hit in April.