Severe weather swept through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee, spawning as many as 80 twisters, meteorologists at the Weather Channel reported Monday.
The number of dead is expected to rise as emergency officials continue to search for missing or trapped victims.
Officials in Jackson, Tennessee, located in Madison County, reported 14 fatalities, apparently the highest death toll in one jurisdiction.
“It’s like downtown Baghdad,” local lawyer Joe Byrd told the Associated Press.
The Jackson Sun Web site showed photos of severely damaged buildings and piles of rubble.
“Trees littered the streets and the smell of gas was heavy in the air. Buildings that defined the city were mangled and crumbling — Mother Liberty CME Church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Nando Jones. Police were directing traffic, while a few people wandered around checking the damage and trying to help,” Jackson Sun reporter Kim Thomas wrote.
Power outages, gas leaks and contaminated water were reported in many affected areas.
Lawrence County, Missouri reported 12 dead. The AP said one of the county’s small towns was completely devastated.
“In Pierce City, not a home or business was left untouched in the town of nearly 1,400, and wreckage made it impossible to walk the streets,” correspondent Connie Farrow reported.
Meteorologists said a line of heavy storms moving across the Midwest began to collide with warm moisture-rich air from the South around 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, producing the severe storms that spawned the tornadoes.
“It’s Midwest weather at its worst,” Lynn Maximuk, a National Weather Service meteorologist, told the Kansas City Star.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Regional Director Dick Hainje said the weather disturbance was rare in its scope and intensity.
“This is a huge, huge outbreak,” Hainje told CNN Monday. “Once in a while, you’ll get like two or maybe three super cells with very big tornadoes, but numbers like this are extremely rare.”
Governors in all of the affected states are reportedly assessing the damage to identify the hardest hit counties as disaster areas, which will give them access to state and federal aid.
Missouri may have borne the the brunt of the severe weather. State officials reported at least 20 fatalities spread across various jurisdictions.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has declared seven counties disaster areas. Crawford County was hit especially hard with 80 homes reportedly destroyed.
“It wiped out a third of the town, I hate to say it,” Crawford County Emergency Service Director Edlon Bedene told the AP. “The trees are like somebody came in and cut them off 10 feet above the ground. It’s a mess.”
President Bush, speaking at a previously scheduled event in Little Rock, Arkansas offered his condolences to the tornado victims and their families.
“Nature is awfully tough at times. The best thing that we can do right now is to pray for those who have suffered,” the president said.
Weather Channel meteorologist Matt Newman warned the same patch of severe weather could cause problems in parts of the South Monday.
“The South escaped the severe weather outbreak on Sunday, but today, parts of the region will not be so lucky. Today’s severe weather threat will extend from the mid-Mississippi Valley eastward, stretching into the western Carolinas. Large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes are possible in this region. Heavy rain could also produce localized flooding,” Newman reported.