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Severe weather, tornadoes kill dozens across South

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  • NEW: Death toll rises to 55 with report of a 13th death in Macon County, Tennessee
  • Tornado outbreak was deadliest in the U.S. in more than 20 years
  • 31 people killed in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, 7 in Kentucky, 4 in Alabama
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JACKSON, Tennessee (CNN) -- Tornadoes and storms in the mid-South have killed 55 people since Tuesday evening in the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years.

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A police officer walks past destroyed cars on the Union University campus in Jackson, Tennessee, Wednesday.

The storms ripped apart homes and trapped residents of university dorms and a retirement home in debris.

The trail of death stretched across four states, with four people killed in Alabama, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and 31 in Tennessee.

In some cases, there was almost no warning before the severe weather hit.

James Baskin of Jackson, Tennessee, was driving a car when a twister "just picked us up and threw us," he said.

Everyone in the car was injured, including his daughter's friend, who suffered a broken collarbone.

"We'll get through it. Nobody's dead. That's the biggest thing," Baskin said.

The storm system was becoming less intense as it moved east Wednesday, CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano said, but the National Weather Service issued tornado and severe storm warnings and said extreme weather still was possible.

President Bush said Wednesday he had called the governors of the affected states to offer help and to tell them that "the American people hold those who suffered up in prayer."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was deploying teams to the area, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.

"We're going to keep watching this," he said. See map of where storms hit »

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In Sumner County, Tennessee, two victims were found outside a house that had been blown away by the storm, said Jay Austin, the county's primary death investigator.

Elsewhere in the area, a mother was found dead in a creek bed about 50 yards from where her house stood. Her baby was found alive 250 yards away. The child was taken to a local hospital, Austin said.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Highway Patrol reported looting in hard-hit Macon County, CNN affiliate WSMV reported.

Macon County Mayor Shelvy Linville told CNN Thursday that the death toll in the county had risen to 13.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who flew over the disaster area Wednesday, said he was stunned by the storm's power. Video Watch Bredesen describe a 'nightmare' »

"I don't think that I have seen, since I've been governor, a tornado where the combination of the intensity of it and the length of the track was as large as this one," Bredesen said.

"That track had to be 25 miles long. [The twister] didn't skip like a lot of them do. ... It's just 25 miles of a tornado sitting on the ground."

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In Jackson, Tennessee, a tornado trapped Union University students and retirees in collapsed buildings, said Julie Oaks, a spokeswoman for the state's Emergency Management Agency. Video Watch how the tornado devastated the campus »

"It looks like a war zone," said university President David Dockery. "Cars and trucks thrown from one side of the campus to the other."

Dockery said the women's dorms were destroyed, along with two academic buildings. Many other school buildings received lesser damage. Photo See photos of chaos left by storm »

Classes were canceled at least until February 18, he said.

Nine students were hospitalized overnight, but there were no life-threatening injuries, according to university spokesman Tim Elsworth.

To the west, a tornado swept through the southeastern section of Memphis in Shelby County. The storms yanked the roof off a hangar at Memphis International Airport, the National Weather Service said.

Oaks said one person was killed at the Hickory Ridge Mall in Shelby County.

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Company officials believe a tornado hit a compressor station for the Columbia Gulf Transmission company in Hartsville, Tennessee, about 40 miles northeast of Nashville, setting off a spectacular natural gas fire. Video Watch flames leap hundreds of feet »

The blaze could be seen in the night sky for miles around, with flames shooting "400, 500 feet in the air," said Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Donnie Smith.

The station was damaged significantly, but there were no reports of injuries or fatalities, said Columbia spokesman Kelly Merritt. "We would not have had any employees there [overnight]." The blaze was put out early Wednesday morning, he said.

The tornado cut a wide swath near the facility, flattening the home of Dara Reasonover.

"It just took the house and everything and my horses and my dog," a shaken Reasonover said, as the glow of the fire lit the sky behind her. "I don't know if they're alive or dead, but we'll make it."

In Arkansas, the storm killed 13 people in six counties, the state Emergency Management Agency said.

In the city of Atkins, a man, woman and child in the same family were killed, county Judge Jim Ed Gibson told CNN. The storms overturned trucks and other vehicles along Interstate 40, closing the highway briefly, he said.

Storms also ripped through Kentucky, killing at least seven people. A state of emergency was declared in Muhlenberg County, and Kentucky National Guard troops were deployed, state emergency spokesman Buddy Rogers said.

In Alabama, the storms killed four people, three in Lawrence County and one in Jackson County, officials said.

Resident Roger Riddle said that when he heard the tornado siren, he rounded up his children and took them to a community storm shelter.

When he emerged, he saw the twister traveling away from them and "total destruction."

"We've got things tore up, and the house across the road from us is completely gone," Riddle said.

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In Mississippi, the director of the state's Emergency Management Agency, Mike Womack, estimated that 20 to 30 tornadoes pounded the state in areas above the state capital of Jackson.

"We have no reported fatalities, and that is extremely fortunate," he said, given the havoc the storm caused elsewhere. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Saeed Ahmed, Mark Bixler and Ed Payne contributed to this report.

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