37 dead in waves of storms across Midwest, South

Updated 7:09 PM EST, Sat March 3, 2012

Story highlights

NEW: A woman recalls her father, killed in Indiana, as being full of joy and laughter

The tornado that hit southern Indiana had winds between 166 and 200 mph

18 died in Kentucky due to the severe weather, including 5 in Laurel County

Ohio's governor vows, "We're knocked down, but we're not knocked out"

Are you there? Send us photos and video. Check out CNN affiliates WLEX, WTHR, WHNT, WAFF, WAAY, KFVS, KTVI, WAVE, WLKY, WDRB and WHAS on the latest on the storms in the South and the Midwest. Find out how to help storm victims with Impact Your World.

Henryville, Indiana CNN —  

Even as potent winds and heavy rains lingered in spots, residents through huge swaths of the eastern United States spent Saturday trying to come to grips with vicious storms that obliterated communities, reduced scores of homes to rubble and left at least 37 people dead.

About 17 million from Texas to Indiana to North Carolina were affected by the massive tornado outbreak that began Friday, and continued into the weekend.

Of the 37 victims, 18 were in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.

Much of Saturday was focused on assessing the damage, treating the wounded and grieving those killed.

But in parts of southern Georgia and northern Florida, it meant braving heavy rain and high wind as far south as Orlando all tied to the same powerful system.

In Lakeland, Georgia, strong winds “destroyed” several houses, felled trees, spurred major outages, and caused what appears to be minor damage to several buildings behind a hospital, Lanier County Sheriff Wesley Studstill told CNN. He said he was unsure if there were any related injuries.

The National Weather Service received two reports of tornadoes Saturday in Lanier County, which is about 30 miles north of the Florida border.

Meanwhile, residents from Alabama to Ohio spent Saturday trying to make sense of the chaos – and right their lives – after the previous day’s devastating tornadoes.

Piles of debris took the place of well-built homes. High winds toppled tall trees. Bright yellow school buses smashed into buildings. Garbage bins and wooden beams flew through the air with the force of a jet airliner.

Churches turned into shelters and thousands of people began a weekend unnerved by nature’s fury.

In hard-hit Henryville, Indiana, rescuers combed for survivors after a twister ripped through the town 20 miles north of Louisville.

Joe Sullivan, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the tornado that swept through that and other Southern Indiana communities was an EF-4 – meaning it had sustained winds of between 166 and 200 mph, putting it in the top 2% of all tornadoes in terms of strength. It went for 52 miles and was roughly 150 yards wide, he added.

There were no active searches for survivors as of 5 p.m. Saturday, said Sgt. Jerry Goodin of the Indiana State Police. The breadth of destruction left authorities, however, with “no idea how many people are homeless.”

“There are a lot of people who can’t sit down on their own couch this evening,” Goodin said.

Wayne Hunter, 64, huddled under a blanket with his wife for safety in the middle of their one-story home – as they’d done many other times – when the tornado “hit head on,” their daughter Pamela Rawlings told CNN on Saturday.

A neighbor eventually found Pamela Hunter some 30 feet away from her husband, bleeding but apparently not suffering from life-threatening injuries. Wayne Hunter, however, did not survive.

“Whether you wanted to laugh or not, he always put a smile on your face,” said Rawlings, remembering her father.

Amid the mounting reports of death and destruction, there was some good news.

She was later identified and family members joined her at the hospital. However, she remained in critical condition Saturday afternoon, Kosair Children’s Hospital spokesman Brian Rublein said.

At Henryville’s high school and adjacent elementary school, staff had huddled in the office area with about 40 students who had not been able to go home and prayed as twisters approached.

“It’s a blessing. We praise God” that no one was hurt, said Glenn Riggs, the elementary school principal.

Added Sullivan, from the weather service, “There could have been scores of fatalities” had most students not been let out early.

Unfortunately, many nearby residents were not so lucky.