HENRYVILLE, Ind. — Powerful storms stretching from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes wrecked several Indiana towns and killed at least 28 people Friday as the system tore roofs off schools and homes, flattened a fire station, flipped over tractor-trailer trucks, and damaged a maximum security prison.
Authorities reported 14 deaths in Indiana, where Marysville was leveled and nearby Henryville also suffered extreme damage.
There were 12 deaths in Kentucky and two in Ohio's Clermont County.
As night fell, dazed residents shuffled through towns, some looking for relatives, as rescue workers searched the rubble for survivors.
The storm systems were so wide that about 34 million people were at risk for severe weather, said Mike Hudson of the National Weather Service in Kansas City, Mo.
At one point, the storms were coming so fast that as many as 4 million people were within 25 miles of a tornado.
"Maybe five times a year we issue what is kind of the highest risk level … ," said Corey Mead, a forecaster at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma. "This is one of those days." He said a powerful storm system was interacting with humid, unstable air that was streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico.
Aerial footage from a TV news helicopter over Henryville showed numerous wrecked houses, some with their roofs torn off and many surrounded by debris.
The video shot by WLKY in Louisville also shows a mangled school bus protruding from the side of a one-story building and dozens of overturned tractor-trailers strewn around the smashed remains of a truck stop.
Andy Bell was guarding a demolished garage until his friend could get to the business to retrieve some valuable tools Friday night.
He looked around at the devastation, pointing to what are now empty lots between a Catholic church and a gas station about a block away.
"There were houses from the Catholic church on the corner all the way to the Marathon station. And now it's just a pile of rubble, all the way up," he said. "It's just a great ... ." His voice trailed off, before he finished: "Wood sticks all the way up."
An Associated Press reporter in Henryville said the high school was destroyed and the second floor had been ripped off the middle school next door. Authorities said school was in session when the tornado hit, but there were only minor injuries there.
Classroom chairs were scattered on the ground outside, trees were uprooted, and cars had huge dents from baseball-sized hail.
Throughout town, there were bent utility poles and piles of debris. Volunteers pushed shopping carts full of water and food up the street and handed it out to people.
"We are no match for Mother Nature at her worst," Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said, adding that he would visit the stricken southeast corner of the state on Saturday.
Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport was closed temporarily because of debris on the runways, but one of three had reopened by late afternoon.
The outbreak was also causing problems in states to the south, including Alabama and Tennessee, where dozens of houses were damaged.
At least 20 homes were ripped off their foundation and eight people were injured in the Chattanooga, Tenn., area after strong winds and hail lashed the area.
To the east in Cleveland, Tenn., Blaine Lawson, 76, and his wife, Billie, were watching the weather when the power went out. As they began to seek shelter, strong winds ripped off their roof.
Neither was hurt.
Thousands of schoolchildren in several states were sent home as a precaution and several Kentucky universities were closed.
The Huntsville, Ala., mayor said students in area schools sheltered in hallways as severe weather passed.
An apparent tornado also damaged a state maximum security prison about 10 miles from Huntsville, but none of the facility's approximately 2,100 inmates escaped.
The weather service said the damage was from an EF-2 tornado with winds of 120 mph that took a path similar to a devastating tornado on April 27, 2011.