Amid the destruction, startling stories of survival began to emerge, including that of a baby found alive in a field 10 miles from her Indiana home and a couple who were hiding in a restaurant basement when a school bus crashed through the building's wall.
The storms, predicted by forecasters for days, killed at least 38 people in five states - Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich proclaimed an emergency Saturday. President Barack Obama offered Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance as state troopers, the National Guard and rescue teams made their way through counties cut off by debris-littered roads and knocked down cellphone towers in a search for survivors.
The landscape was littered with everything from sheet metal and insulation to crushed cars and, in one place, a fire hydrant, making travel difficult.
No building was left untouched in West Liberty, a small eastern Kentucky farming town in the foothills of the Appalachians. Two white police cruisers had been picked up and tossed into city hall, and few structures were recognizable.
The Rev. Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled huddling with four others in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed in the storm.
The pastor and his wife had just returned to the parsonage from a trip to a city about an hour away when he turned on the TV and saw that the storm was coming. Jett yelled to his wife that they needed to take shelter in the basement of the church next door. They were joined by two congregants who were cleaning the church and a neighbor. As they ran for the basement stairs, they could see the funnel cloud approaching.
The last one down was Jett's wife, Jeanene.
"I just heard this terrific noise," she said. "The windows were blowing out as I came down the stairs."
The building collapsed, but they were able to get out through a basement door. They escaped with only bumps and bruises.
"We're thankful to God," Jett said. "It was a miracle that the five of us survived."
In Indiana, a baby was found alone in a field about 10 miles north of where her family lives in New Pekin, said Melissa Richardson, spokeswoman at St. Vincent Salem Hospital, where the little girl was initially taken. The child was in critical condition Saturday at a hospital in Louisville, Ky., and authorities were still trying to figure out how she ended up in the field, Richardson said.
A tornado hit the New Pekin area Friday, but it wasn't clear whether it had picked up the child. Authorities have not identified the baby or her parents.
About 20 miles east, a twister demolished Henryville, Ind., the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. The second story of the elementary school was torn off, and wind blew out the windows and gutted the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church. Few recognizable buildings remained.
A secretary at the school said a bus left Friday afternoon with 11 children, but the driver turned back after realizing they were driving straight into the storm. The children were ushered into the nurse's station and were hiding under tables and desks when the tornado struck. None were hurt.
The school bus, which was parked in front of the school, was tossed several hundred yards into the side of a nearby restaurant.
Todd and Julie Money were hiding there, having fled their Scottsburg home, which has no basement. They were in the basement of their friend's restaurant when the tornado struck.
"Unreal. The pressure on your body, your ears pop, trees snap," Todd Money said. "When that bus hit the building, we thought it exploded."
"It was petrifying," Julie Money added. "God put us here for a reason."
Friday's 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 Center had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level. The weather service issued 297 tornado warnings and 388 severe thunderstorm warnings from Friday through early Saturday.
In April, when tornadoes killed more than 240 people in Alabama, it issued 688 tornado warnings and 757 severe thunderstorm warnings from Texas to New York, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the storm prediction center.
The storms have been carrying strong winds that change direction and increase in speed as they rise in the atmosphere, creating a spin, said Corey Mead, a storm prediction center meteorologist. The tornadoes develop when cold air in the storm system moving east from the Mississippi River Valley hits warm air coming north from the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
More severe storms were expected Saturday across parts of southern Georgia and northern Florida. Friday's killed 19 people in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.
In Washington County, Ind., residents described seeing a massive tornado come over a hill and plow through a grove of trees, which looked almost like a line of bulldozers eight wide had rolled through, crushing the land.
When Gene Lewellyn, his son and his son's 7-year-old daughter saw the tornado come over the hill, they rushed to the basement of his one-story brick home and covered themselves with a carpet. A black cloud enveloped the house.
"It just shook once, and it (the house) was gone," said Lewellyn, 62, a retired press operator.
His family was safe, but their home was reduced to a pile of bricks with sheet metal wrapped around splintered trees. Pieces of insulation coated the ground, and across the street a large trailer picked up by the storm had landed on top of a boat. Lewellyn spent Saturday picking through the debris in 38-degree cold.
"Right now, we are not sure what we are going to do," he said. "We will get out what we can get out. Hopefully, we won't have to argue from the insurance company very much."
Janet Elliott was sitting on her bed in Chattanooga, Tenn., when a severe weather warning scrolled across the bottom of the screen. She didn't hear sirens outside, but fierce winds were blowing, and her cats seemed clingy. She noticed her dogs had gotten low to the floor.
She ran to the basement and tried with all her might to pull the door shut, but she couldn't. She heard a ripping sound as the ceiling peeled off and wind wrenched the doorknob from her hand.
"I looked up and I could see the sky," she said. "I realized if I had stayed on the bed two seconds longer, I would have been sucked out or crushed."
Once the initial terror passed, a new wave of fear washed over her: Her husband had left for the store shortly before the storm hit, her 33-year-old handicapped son was likely on a bus headed home from school and one of her cats was missing. But within hours, all were found safe.
On Saturday, volunteers secured a tarp over the top of the house to keep the rain out. Waving her arm at the mess in the living room, Elliott pointed out the stone fireplace and mantle her husband had built and the antiques they collected in their decades together.
"This was more than just a house, more than just a place to flop," she said. "There was a lot of love in this house, it was special."