Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour described the aftermath as "the obliteration of a small community."
Officials have so far counted 61 tornadoes in nine states as the storm moved through Mississippi and into Florida and South Carolina Sunday.
In Mississippi, where an astounding 32 twisters were reported, residents said it looked as if the sky was falling as a tornado chased them down the road. Winds were clocked upward of 160 mph, and one tornado had a base one and a half miles wide.
"We just prayed the whole way through," said Chatawa, Miss., resident Regina Weeks, who survived the tornadoes by huddling into a small bathroom with four of her relatives.
"The tub area is the only place in our home where there is a ceiling on top of us," she said. "Only place in house that didn't have ceiling ripped off from on top of us."
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Barbour toured the damage from the sky. He grew up in one of the towns that was nearly destroyed.
"Very small area, but the destruction is just like this," he said. "It's just the obliteration of a small community."
In Yazoo City, Miss., Dale Thrasher was alone at the Hillcrest Baptist Church, making photocopies, when the tornado struck.
"The windows started blowing out, and I could hear the building cracking and shaking," he said.
Thrasher took cover under a small table near the church pulpit as debris swirled around him. The church organ was tipped over, and the copier he was using just barely missed him.
His only injury was a small cut on his hand.
"The Lord just protected that little area," he said.
"I was praying," he said. "It's just like he put his arms around me, and that table and sheltered me from that storm."
Deadly Tornadoes Send Southerners Scrambling for Cover
Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt came back home to Mississippi to look for his mother, who was uninjured. He later worked in a yellow tractor clearing away broken trees.
"Everything back here was gone," Jean Oswalt said. "It was just kind of like the world had come to an end."
Residents reported surviving the storms by hiding in their bathroom, their kitchens, even in their cars. And though the devastation was stunning, most escaped with barely a scratch.
Several people said they were able to call and text their friends and family as the storm approached, possibly giving them extra time to take cover.
In Weir, Miss., Ron Sullivan was inside his small grocery store with his wife and four customers when a tornado blew through the building. Sullivan was thrown 20 feet into a cinder block wall, which then collapsed.
"When it hit the building, it literally was an explosion," he said. "It was gone immediately."
Like Thrasher and so many others, Sullivan said he relied on his faith to survive.
"I'm deep in my faith. And I believe that God let me know that he's got a little something else planned for me," he said. "So there's something else he needs me to do, and I'm ready to do that."