A string of violent storms demolished small towns in Indiana and cut off rural communities in Kentucky as an early-season tornado outbreak killed at least 37 people in four states.
Massive thunderstorms, predicted by forecasters for days, threw off dozens of tornadoes as they raced from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes.
Twisters crushed blocks of homes, knocked out mobile phone and landlines, ripped power lines from broken poles and tossed cars, school buses and tractors on to roads made impassable by debris.
Weather that put millions of people at risk killed at least 37 in four states - Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio – 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”.
In Henryville, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders, volunteers pushed shopping carts full of water and food down littered streets, handing supplies to anyone in need.
Hundreds of firefighters and police drove around town, where few recognisable structures remained – all of Henryville’s schools were destroyed. Wind had blown out the windows of the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church and gutted the building.
“It’s all gone,” said Andy Bell, who was guarding a friend’s demolished service garage, not far from where a school bus stuck out from the side of a restaurant.
“It was beautiful,” he said, looking around at the town of about 2,000 north of Louisville, Kentucky. “And now it’s just gone. I mean, gone.”
A baby girl was found in a field in Salem, Indiana, about 10 miles north of New Pekin, where her family lives, said Melissa Richardson, spokeswoman at St Vincent Salem Hospital, where the little girl was initially taken. Authorities were still trying to figure out how she ended up in the field alone, Mrs Richardson said
The child was in a critical condition at Kosair Chldren’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Hospital spokesman Brian Rublein said the baby girl has been identified and that family members are at the hospital with her.
The tornado 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 Centre had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level.