Most of the deaths from the storms, which the National Weather Service said spawned tornadoes in five West Tennessee counties, were along a 25-mile path stretching from Newbern, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, east to Bradford.
Rescue officials in Dyer County reported 11 deaths, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Kurt Pickering said.
"The fatality number in Gibson County is eight," James Brown, assistant emergency management director for the county, said from the county seat of Trenton. "There are 37 injuries with four of those critical."
Brown said most of the deaths were reported around the Gibson County towns of Bradford and Dyer. A family of four from Bradford was among the dead, officials said.
State troopers have sent nine special operations personnel into the area this morning with three dogs that are trained to search for people and cadavers, Tennessee Highway Patrol spokeswoman Melissa McDonald said.
"This is a high fatality count," Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Kurt Pickering said. "(This) is among the bigger storms that I can remember in the almost eight years I've been at TEMA."
As dawn broke, the damage from the storms that struck around 8 p.m. CST Monday was becoming apparent. In Newbern, a line of mature trees were all snapped off at about 9 feet above the ground and a metal carport could be seen twisted and wrapped around a tree.
Betty Sisk, her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son had little chance to take cover.
"By the time the (tornado) sirens started going off, it was at our back door," Sisk said Monday. "I didn't hear a train sound, I heard a roaring."
She and the children ran into a closet.
"The next thing I knew, everything was falling apart," Sisk said.
The tornado blew apart the home and flung the Sisks into their yard, where they huddled in the grass until it passed over. Sisk said she watched as the tornado hit and damaged the Jimmy Dean Foods sausage plant across the street.
Nothing remained of Sisk's wood-frame home Monday except for the concrete steps.
A nearby house was destroyed, and Sisk said she had been told the elderly couple who lived there had died. Another neighbor's home was sitting on the lawn, blown about 30 feet off its foundation.
TEMA officials estimated 1,200 buildings were damaged in Gibson County. Damage assessments were still under way in Dyer County.
Preliminary information from the National Weather Service in Memphis reported tornadoes in five counties in West Tennessee — Dyer, Carroll, Haywood, Gibson and Fayette.
Power outages were widespread across the area, with about 5,000 customers in Gibson County and half of Dyer County, which has about 37,000 residents, affected, Pickering said.
The severe storm system was blamed for the deaths of at least four other people in Missouri and Illinois.