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At least 37 dead as tornadoes batter American Midwest

Huge twister kills family but scoops up toddler and dumps her – alive – in a field near her home

A string of violent tornadoes touched down across the United States, flattening small towns from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, cutting off rural communities and killing more than 30 people.

Yesterday, as daylight allowed mile after mile of wreckage to be sifted, the death toll was rising. An unknown number of people are still missing.

Searches in Indiana led to the discovery of a two-year-old girl lying alone in a cornfield. It was thought that she had been sucked up and swept across land in Salem. Her condition in hospital was described as "critical" last night. Hospital staff said the girl's parents and two siblings had died in the storm.

A four-year-old girl and her grandparents, meanwhile, were found dead in a field behind their home after being swept away. The family had been sheltering in a cellar with the girl's mother, who survived.

Huge thunderstorms, predicted by forecasters for days, threw off dozens of tornadoes, hitting Kentucky and Indiana particularly hard. Twisters that crushed entire blocks of homes knocked out mobile phones and landlines alike, ripped power lines from broken poles, and tossed cars, buses and lorries on to roads made impassable by debris. The known death toll is 37, but the scale of the devastation made a quick assessment impossible.

Susie Renner, 54, said she saw two tornadoes barrelling down on the town of Henryville, Kentucky, within minutes of each other. The first was brown and thick with debris; the second was black. "I'm a storm chaser," Ms Renner said, "and I have never been this frightened before."

In this town of about 2,000 people, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders, few recognisable structures remained. All of the town's schools were destroyed. "It's all gone," said Andy Bell, a resident, as he guarded a friend's demolished service garage, not far from where a school bus stuck out from the side of a restaurant and a small classroom chair jutted from a car window in a parking lot. "It was beautiful," he said, looking around. "And now it's just gone. I mean, gone."

A total of 14 people were reported killed in Indiana. Two people died further north in Holton, where it appeared a tornado cut a diagonal swathe down the town's tiny main drag, demolishing a petrol station in one spot and leaving a tiny white church intact down the road. Officials also confirmed seven other deaths.

The death toll rose to at least 14 in Kentucky. In West Liberty, Stephen Burton heard the twister coming and pulled his 23-year-old daughter to safety just before the tornado destroyed the second storey of the family's home. "I just held on to her and I felt like I was getting sand-blasted on my back," Mr Burton said.

Officials are unable to confirm the full extent of the damage. "We can't even get into some of these counties," said Kentucky's emergency management spokesman Buddy Rogers. "The power is out, phones are out, roads are blocked and now it's dark, which complicates things."

Last week's violent storms raised fears that 2012 will be another bad year for tornadoes after 550 deaths in the United States were blamed on twisters last year.