Associated Press – After a tornado pounced on Tupelo, Miss., one gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant.
Francis Gonzalez owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to that station. Gonzalez, her three children and two employees ducked for cover in the store's cooler shortly after a cellphone blared a tornado warning.
In the nick of time. Within seconds, the wind picked up and glass shattered. The roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards. A nearby SUV had its windows blown out. The storefront window had a large hole in it. Debris lay everywhere.
"It took us by surprise," Gonzalez said in Spanish. Stunned by the destruction all around, she added: "My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?"
A powerful storm system moved through a large swath of the South early Tuesday, killing more than two dozen people from Arkansas to Alabama over more than two days of destruction. The Gonzalez family's story is just one of those from people in Mississippi and Alabama who made it through the frightening chaos.
NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on severe weather about 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was coming close enough that maybe he and his staff should abandon the TV studio.
"This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly," he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.
Moments later he adds, "A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now." The video then showed Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he was still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.
"Basement, now!" he yelled, before disappearing off camera himself.
Later, the station tweeted, "We are safe here."
At the Winston County Medical Center in Louisville, Miss., Dr. Michael Henry, head of the emergency room, didn't expect a tornado at such close quarters.
"We thought we were going to be OK. Then a guy came in and said, 'It's here right now.' Then boom ... it blew through," Henry recalled.
The fierce winds knocked down two walls. The emergency room and an outpatient clinic, at the back of the hospital, bore the brunt of the wind damage. The 27-bed hospital also was pocked with holes in its roof and water damage, dimly lit when it kicked over to generator power.
Fifteen patients were in hospital rooms at the time. Eight or nine were in the emergency room, but staff said no one died. Doctors relocated to a former operating room and sent some patients to other hospitals.
Sennaphie Yates of Louisville, Miss., said her grandfather had been taken to the Winston County Medical Center after a fainting spell. She said she and family members arrived at the hospital to check on him just before the tornado hit.
Yates said hospital workers herded people into a hallway. "They had all of us against the wall and gave us pillows. They said 'get down and ... don't get up,'" she said.
Yates said the worst of it lasted three, maybe five minutes. Then the storm passed. Afterward, she and family members stayed with her grandfather for hours until hospital officials cleared him to go home.
Republican state Sen. Giles Ward of Mississippi huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 19-year-old dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house. The winds also flipped his son-in-law's SUV upside down onto the patio in Louisville, Miss., home to about 6,600 people.
"For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable," Ward said. "It's about as awful as anything we've gone through."
He estimated that 30 houses in his neighborhood, Jordan Circle, were either destroyed or heavily damaged. After the storm passed, Ward and his family went to a neighbor's home where 19 people had managed to find safety in a basement.
Monica Foster was driving home on rural Alabama roads from a funeral when the skies became grim.
She would have kept driving if she could have. But the weather was getting worse and she wasn't alone, mindful of her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, traveling with her.
With the wind howling outside and rain blowing sideways they stopped at a gas station in Fayette to ride out a tornado warning. One of the girls cried as they huddled with a station employee in a storage area. "I wouldn't have pulled in if I didn't have the two girls," Foster said.