Rescue workers with search dogs trudged through the hills of Kentucky and emergency crews in several states combed through wrecked homes in a desperate search for survivors of tornadoes that killed dozens of people in the US Midwest and South.

But amid the flattened homes, gutted churches and crunched cars, startling stories of survival emerged, including that of a two-year-old girl found alone, but alive in a field near her Indiana home after her family was killed, a couple hiding in a restaurant cellar when a school bus crashed through the wall, and a pastor nearly buried in his church's basement.

The storms, predicted by forecasters for days, killed at least 38 people in five states - Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, where governor John Kasich proclaimed an emergency.

President Barack Obama offered Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance as state troopers, the National Guard and rescue teams made their way through counties cut off by debris-littered roads and toppled mobile phone towers.

The landscape was littered with everything from sheet metal and insulation to crushed cars and, in one place, a fire hydrant, making travel difficult.

No building was left untouched in West Liberty, a small eastern Kentucky farming town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Two white police cars had been hurled into city hall, and few structures were recognisable.

The Rev Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled huddling with four others in a cubby-hole in the basement as the church collapsed in the storm.

The pastor and his wife had just returned to the parsonage from a trip to a city about an hour away when he turned on the TV and saw that the storm was coming. Mr Jett yelled to his wife that they needed to take shelter in the basement of the church next door.

They were joined by two congregants who were cleaning the church and a neighbour. As they ran for the basement stairs, they could see the funnel cloud approaching.

The last one down was Mr Jett's wife Jeanene. "I just heard this terrific noise," she said. "The windows were blowing out as I came down the stairs."

The building collapsed, but they were able to get out through a basement door. They escaped with only bumps and bruises.

"We're thankful to God," Mr Jett said. "It was a miracle that the five of us survived."

In southern Indiana, a toddler was found alone in a field near her family's home after a tornado hit in New Pekin. Authorities learned that she was the sole survivor of her immediate family, said Cis Gruebbel, a spokeswoman for Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.

The girl's mother, father, two-month-old sister and two-year-old brother died on Friday, Ms Gruebbel said. She is in a critical condition with extended family members at the hospital, and authorities are still trying to find out how she ended up in the field.

"She is in extremely critical condition," Jack Brough, the girl's grandfather, told The Courier-Journal of Louisville. "She's had a lot of injuries to her head. The doctors told us that the next 24-48 hours are very critical."

About 20 miles east, a twister demolished Henryville, Indiana, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. The second floor of the elementary school was torn off, and wind blew out the windows and gutted the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church. Few recognisable buildings remained.

A secretary at the school said a bus left on Friday afternoon with 11 children, but the driver turned back after realising they were driving straight into the storm. The children were ushered into the nurse's station and were hiding under tables and desks when the tornado struck. None was hurt.

The school bus, which was parked in front of the school, was thrown several hundred yards into the side of a nearby restaurant.

Todd and Julie Money were hiding there, having fled their Scottsburg home, which has no cellar. They were in the basement of their friend's restaurant when the tornado struck.

"Unreal. The pressure on your body, your ears pop, trees snap," Mr Money said. "When that bus hit the building, we thought it exploded."

"It was petrifying," Mrs Money added. "God put us here for a reason."

The tornado outbreak came two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and forecasters at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Centre had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level.

The weather service issued 297 tornado warnings and 388 severe thunderstorm warnings from Friday to early Saturday. In March, a storm of its magnitude happens once a decade, meteorologists said.

However, the storm still did not measure up to the one on April 27, when tornadoes killed more than 240 people in Alabama. On that day, 688 tornado warnings and 757 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued from Texas to New York, said Greg Carbin, warning co-ordination meteorologist at the storm prediction centre.

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