WAVERLY, Va. -- A storm system that swept across the United States' East Coast on Wednesday cost people their lives and families their homes, but many said they were grateful that they survived the ordeal. More than a dozen tornadoes touched down. Hail the size of golf balls rained from the sky. And near-100mph winds were recorded in Florida.
The dead, the injured
Three of the four killed in Virginia -- a 2-year-old boy, a 50-year-old man and a 26-year-old man -- lost their lives in Waverly, Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the state police, said in a news release.
Their bodies were found about 300 yards away from where their mobile home once sat.
Sgt. Michelle Anaya confirmed to CNN affiliate WAVY that the trio was thrown from the home.
At least 20 people were reported injured in Essex County, Virginia, where one tornado was reported, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
And in Tappahannock -- a city in Essex County -- authorities were trying to rescue several people trapped in wreckage from the storm, CNN affiliate WWBT reported.
The pictures, the stories
Desmond Gardner was in his car with a relative when the storm hit. It lifted all three of them off the ground.
"The wind picked the car up and dropped us down," he told WAVY. "All I could do was hold on tight, tell my uncle I loved him and pray."
Gardner said he was in his car with a relative when the wind tore down power lines.
After taking out the power lines, Gardner described the scene as "a big ball of fire."
Armin Harris thinks a stop at a gas station may have saved his life.
He was driving through Waverly, Virginia, on his way to pick up his daughter from school on Wednesday, but was running a few minutes late after stopping at a gas station.
He got back in his car, and minutes later arrived at a chaotic scene on the highway -- which he first thought was a really bad accident.
"I just stayed in my car and prayed, hoping no one was hurt," Harris told CNN. "Then I saw this lady who was saying they were looking for a kid."
Harris got out of his car to see if he could help, and was stunned by the damage. He realized it was from a storm.
"It was indescribable," he said. "There was mass destruction everywhere."
The father said emergency officials were helping to get a lady out from the rubble. They had a forklift picking up the broken parts of a building.
Harris feared that if he hadn't stopped at the gas station he would have been in the middle of what people described as a tornado.
Sears Day owns a dairy farm in Oxford, North Carolina, that's been operating since 1943.
"I ran through a lot of hail and wind," he told CNN affiliate WRAL.
The aftermath was "a mess," as one of Day's employees put it. A silo could be seen torn apart, a vehicle was turned upside down and a tractor was destroyed. Fortunately, none of his 150 cattle were hurt, he said.
Despite the damage, he feels "mighty lucky" after the ordeal.
"We're thankful we lost no animals and nobody was hurt."
"I was laying down in bed with my dog, and all of a sudden, I heard a big rumbling sound, the whole entire house started shaking and I just knew that it was a tornado." Ryan Portish told CNN affiliate WVUE from St. James Parish, Louisiana.
He hustled his dog into the bathtub and climbed in. Three more people piled in with them.
"They were praying, and I was crying. I was so scared," Portish said. "The house would not stop shaking."
Portish and the others were unhurt when the twister brushed past his home.
In St. John the Baptist Parish, one resident who lost his home was in disbelief.
"It's hard to describe," said Michael Nelson, who was home with family members when the storm struck. "You're sitting there one minute playing video games and the next thing you know, your house is gone -- within 10 minutes."
The Nelsons will stay with family nearby, but they said their home is likely a total loss.
"I've got literally nothing left," Nelson told WVUE. "We're all alive, so that's a blessing in itself. That's all I can really say about that."
- A curfew was put in effect in Waverly starting Wednesday night to clear the roads for cleanup and first responders, state police
- Many authorities are asking that people stay off the road.
- All schools in Appomattox County will be closed on Thursday, according to Virginia State Police.
- Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency on Wednesday and canceled a trip in order to visit Waverly and Appomattox on Thursday.
CNN's Monica Garrett, Melanie Whitley, Tina Burnside, Judson Jones, Ben Brumfield, Amanda Jackson, Dave Alsup, Keith Allen, Shawn Nottingham, Taylor Ward, Henry Hanks and Dave Hennen contributed to this report.