BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CBS) -- A wave of severe storms laced with tornadoes strafed the South on Wednesday, killing at least 39 people in four states and splintering buildings across swaths of an Alabama university town.
In Alabama alone, 25 people died Wednesday. There were 11 deaths in Mississippi, including a father killed as he tried to shelter his daughter from the storm at a campsite.
Tuscaloosa's mayor said sections of the city that's home to the University of Alabama had been destroyed by a massive tornado, while a hospital there said its emergency room had admitted at least 100 people. News footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened home, with many neighboring buildings in the city of more than 83,000 also reduced to rubble.
"The city experienced widespread damage from a tornado that cut a path of destruction deep into the heart of the city," Mayor Walter Maddox said in a statement.
The storm system spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Georgia. The system was forecast to hit the Carolinas next and then move further northeast.
"Today is the day you want to be careful," said Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma.
A state of emergency was declared in Alabama, where Emergency Management Agency spokesman Yasamie August said the death toll had reached 25 for the day.
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled Wednesday night by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians. University officials said there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, and it was opening its student recreation center as a shelter.
Brian Sanders, the manager of an oil change shop, brought his daughters to DCH Regional Medical Center because he felt they'd be safe there. He said his business had been leveled.
"I can't believe we walked away," he said.
Storms had struck Birmingham earlier in the day, felling numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas.
Austin Ransdell and a friend had to hike out of their neighborhood south of Birmingham after the house where he was living was crushed by four trees. No one was hurt.
As he walked away from the wreckage, trees and power lines crisscrossed residential streets, and police cars and utility trucks blocked a main highway.
"The house was destroyed. We couldn't stay in it. Water pipes broke; it was flooding the basement," he said. "We had people coming in telling us another storm was coming in about four or five hours, so we just packed up."
Not far away, Craig Branch was stunned by the damage.
"Every street to get into our general subdivision was blocked off. Power lines are down; trees are all over the road. I've never seen anything like that before," he said
In Huntsville, Meteorologists found themselves in the path of tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office.
In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisor with the National Park Service. The girl wasn't hurt.
The 9-year-old girl was brought to a motorhome about 100 feet away where campsite volunteer Greg Maier was staying with his wife, Maier said. He went back to check on the father and found him dead.
"She wasn't hurt, just scared and soaking wet," Maier said.
Her father, Lt. Wade Sharp, had been with the Covington Police Department for 19 years.
"He was a hell of an investigator," said Capt. Jack West, his colleague in Louisiana.
Also in Mississippi, a man was crushed in his mobile home when a tree fell during the storm, a truck driver died after hitting a downed tree on a state highway and a member of a county road crew was killed when he was struck by a tree they were removing.
By late Wednesday, the death toll had increased to 11 for the day, said Mississippi Emergency Management Association spokesman Jeff Rent. The governor also made an emergency declaration for much of the state.
Storms also killed two people in Georgia and one in Tennessee on Wednesday. Aside from the 39 deaths on Wednesday, one person was killed by the same storm system late the previous night in Arkansas.
In eastern Tennessee, a woman was killed by falling trees in her trailer in Chattanooga. Just outside the city in Tiftonia, what appeared to be a tornado also struck at the base of the tourist peak Lookout Mountain.
Tops were snapped off trees and insulation and metal roof panels littered the ground. Police officers walked down the street, spray-painting symbols on houses they had checked for people who might be inside.
Mary Ann Bowman, 42, stood watching from her driveway as huge tractors moved downed trees in the street. She had rushed home from work to find windows shattered at her house, and her grandmother's house next door shredded. The 91-year-old woman wasn't home at the time.
"When I pulled up I just started crying," Bowman said.
Many around the region were happy to survive unscathed even if their houses didn't. In Choctaw County, Miss., 31-year-old Melanie Cade patched holes in her roof after it was heavily damaged overnight.
Cade was in bed with her three children when the storm hit.
"The room lit up, even though the power was out. Stuff was blowing into the house, like leaves and bark. Rain was coming in sideways," she said, adding that they managed to scurry into a bathroom.
"I didn't care what happened to the house," Cade said. "I was just glad we got out of there.