Emergency crews continue to search for victims of a vast storm that pummeled Southern states this weekend, as dozens of tornadoes and flash floods from Oklahoma to North Carolina left at least 44 people dead in their wake.
North Carolina was one of the hardest-hit states, with officials saying more than 60 tornadoes ripped through the area. Gov. Beverly Perdue toured hard-hit areas by helicopter Sunday and talked to families whose homes were destroyed.
"They'd look around them, and everything they had was gone. You can't over-exaggerate that," Perdue said. "Everything was gone, and these women and men would just look you in the face and say, 'We're alive, and that's what we're thankful for.' "
Joe Stiles, who lives in North Carolina's hard-hit Raleigh area, said residents were helping each other with cleanup and recovery.
"If you look up and down the street, you've got neighbors and churches and everybody coming out to help, and how can you not be amazed at the response?" he asked. "I look at that, and yes, we've lost some property, but it's just property."
The storms crushed trailer parks and brought life in the center of the state's second-largest city to a virtual standstill. It was the worst outbreak in the state since 22 twisters in 1984 killed 42 people.
Survivors were left to recall miraculous escapes.
In the Bladen County community of Ammon, about 70 miles south of Raleigh, Audrey McKoy and her husband, Milton, saw a tornado bearing down on them over the tops of the pine trees that surround the seven or eight mobile homes that make up their neighborhood. He glanced at a nearby farm and saw the winds lifting pigs and other animals into the sky.
"It looked just like 'The Wizard of Oz,' " Audrey said.
They took shelter in their laundry room, and after emerging once the storm had passed, they were disoriented for a moment. The twister had turned their mobile home around, and they were standing in their backyard.
Milton found three bodies in their neighborhood, including 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony, who died in adjacent mobile homes. He stopped his wife from coming over to see.
"You don't want to look at this," he told her.
The violent weather began Thursday in Oklahoma, where two people died, before cutting across the Deep South on Friday and hitting North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday. Authorities said seven people died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; six in Virginia; and one in Mississippi.
More than 240 tornadoes were reported from the storm system, including the 62 in North Carolina, but the National Weather Service's final numbers could be lower because some tornadoes may have been reported more than once.
The state emergency management agency said it had reports of 23 fatalities from Saturday's storms, but local officials confirmed only 21 deaths to The Associated Press.
The conditions that allowed for the storm occur on the Great Plains maybe twice a year, but they almost never happen in North Carolina, according to Scott Sharp, a weather service meteorologist in Raleigh.
The atmosphere was unstable Saturday, which allows air to rise and fall quickly, creating winds of hurricane strength or greater. There was also plenty of moisture in the air, which fuels violent storms. Shear winds at different heights, moving in different directions, created the spin needed to create tornadoes, Sharp said.
Many of the deaths across the state occurred in mobile homes like the ones in Ammon. The three deaths in Raleigh were in a mobile home park about five miles north of downtown, which was still closed off to residents early Monday.
Census data from 2007, the latest available, estimate that 14.5 percent of residences in North Carolina are mobile homes, the seventh highest percentage in the nation and well over the U.S. average of 6.7 percent.
North Carolina officials tallied more than 130 serious injuries, 65 homes destroyed and another 600 significantly damaged by Sunday evening, according to state public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema. Officials expect those totals to climb as damage assessments continue.
While the death toll may climb and while it will be weeks before final damage assessments are completed, residents and officials alike are looking to make repairs and start building what was lost.
Aleta Tootle and four other people sheltered in a closet in her Bertie County home, emerging with only a few scratches after the rest of the building was ripped to shreds. Surveying the wreckage Sunday, she said there was only one thing left to do.
"All we can do is start over," she said. "We don't have a choice."
NPR's Cheryl Corley and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.