Picture Post: Storm force: tornadoes in the Deep South

The polls were just closing in America's Super Tuesday primary contests when the apocalypse came – not a political apocalypse but a swirl of tornadoes that ripped across the voting states of Tennessee and Arkansas, killing at least 48 people and injuring hundreds of others. Roofs flew off buildings like lids off jam jars. Cars and trucks were tossed across roads. Mobile homes crumpled, and even solidly built houses collapsed, leaving nothing but their concrete foundations standing. Phone and power lines blew down. Trees snapped.

"It looks like a war zone," the president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, told a television reporter after a series of dormitory buildings on his campus collapsed. The university will be closed for the next two weeks to allow time for initial repairs.

Amateur footage of a tornado forming yesterday in Memphis, Tennessee

Just south of Memphis, several warehouse roofs collapsed, killing three people. "[The tornado] ripped the warehouses apart," a local police spokesman said. "The best way to describe it is it looks like a bomb went off." The wail of tornado-warning sirens punctuated the night for hours afterwards.

In a remote area north of Nashville, a natural-gas pumping station caught fire, sending a plume of flame and smoke high into the sky.

Amateur footage of the storms hitting Oxford, Mississippi - Contains some strong language

And so the stories piled up: families who escaped unscathed but lost everything; a pregnant woman who broke her arm trying to protect a child; darker tales of entire families wiped out.

The storms started to the northwest, in Kentucky, and cut their brutal swath through Arkansas and Tennessee before heading on to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, where a storm alert was still in operation yesterday morning. Meteorologists said the tornadoes were not unexpected, given the season, and may have been provoked by a spell of unusually warm weather. The winds are now expected to be followed by severe cold and snow.

There was no immediate word about disaster relief from the Bush administration. But several presidential-election contenders, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas who won a big political victory in the region, paused in their election-night speeches to mention the storms and their victims.