In Benton County, Mississippi, four people – including a married couple and two neighbours on the same street – were confirmed dead and their homes destroyed.
Bobby Watkins said as he and his wife took a walk amid the destruction. “Santa brought us a good one, didn’t he? I may have lost some stuff, but I got my life.”
Unseasonably warm weather on Wednesday helped create twisters from Arkansas to Michigan.
The line of spring-like storms continued marching east on Christmas Eve, dumping torrential rain that flooded roads in Alabama and caused a mudslide in the mountains of Georgia.
Authorities confirmed seven deaths in Mississippi, including a seven-year-old boy who was in a car that was hit by a storm. Six more died in Tennessee. One person was killed in Arkansas.
Dozens more were injured, some seriously, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Search teams combed damaged homes and businesses for people still missing, including at least one man in hard-hit Benton County. The hunt was made complicated because so many had left for the holidays.
“Until they know for sure where those folks are, they’re going to keep looking, because we’ve had in some cases houses levelled, and they’re just not there anymore,” Mr Flynn said.
Glenda Hunt, 69, was cooking chicken on Wednesday night at her Benton County home, where Christmas Eve lunch is a family tradition, when her daughter called to warn her of the approaching storm. She and her husband ducked into their storm shelter and wrestled the door shut against the wind’s powerful suction. She started praying when she heard sheet metal hitting trees.
On Thursday, heavy farm equipment and corn were strewn across the couple’s property. Their house sustained heavy structural damage but was still standing.
“We’re OK and that’s all that matters,” she said. “But the Lord did save my furniture.”