At least 11 people have been killed after severe storms hit several southern US states, damaging homes, cars and businesses. Forecasters have blamed unseasonably warm weather.
Local media reports described how the powerful storm system roared across Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas over the past two days leaving close to a dozen people dead.
As many as 20 tornadoes hit Mississippi on Wednesday, with one twister causing most of the damage, according to the National Weather Service.
More than 8,000 homes were left without power after buildings collapsed and trees were uprooted. Search parties were dispatched for several missing people and volunteers helped in a clean up operation ahead of the Christmas holidays.
Among seven people killed in Mississippi was a 7-year-old boy who died when a twister picked up and tossed the car he was in, officials said.
State governor Phil Bryan issued a state of emergency to allow officials to request federal aid for recovery efforts.
"Most of these storms caused a lot of damage in north Mississippi but our teams are out assessing the damage, trying to put a quantity on how many homes and how many businesses have been damaged," Brett Carr of the state's Emergency Management Agency said.
Three other people were killed in Tennessee and one in Arkansas.
"It's just a very, very devastating tragic time for our community, especially now here at the holidays," interim sheriff Nick Weems told CNN from Perry County, Tennessee.
One local resident told the US news channel that after the tornado, his neighborhood looked "like a waste land," adding that his family had just 45 seconds to reach the storm shelter before the twister hit.
Forecasters said warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico collided with colder, dryer air from Canada to set off the violent weather, which is more typical in spring and summer in North America.
Thunderstorms were forecast along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, as well as in neighboring Georgia.
To the north-east, another cluster of severe weather was threatening Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, as well as the US capital city, Washington.
Meanwhile, a white Christmas was expected for some parts of southern California on Friday, forecasters said.
mm/jm (AFP, AP, dpa)