Dozens of tornadoes tore through the southern United States Wednesday afternoon and evening, reaping destruction and leaving at least 231 dead.

By Thursday morning news services were filled with photos of debris-strewn neighborhoods and reports of bodies being pulled from the rubble.

Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 131 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 29 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky. The counts given were not final.

"It happened so fast it was unbelievable," Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter picking through the remains of his son's wrecked home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham, told the Associated Press. "They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here."

"I don't know how anyone survived," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN. "We're used to tornadoes here in Tuscaloosa. It's part of growing up. But when you look at a path of destruction that's likely 5 to 7 miles long in an area half a mile to a mile wide ... it's an amazing scene. There's parts of the city I don't recognize, and that's someone that's lived here his entire life."

The Tuscaloosa tornado was estimated to be a mile wide and was classed an F5 on the Fujita scale of tornado intensity. F5's are colloquially known as “the finger of God” due to their awesome destructive power.

Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said they were monitoring the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant near Athens in northern Alabama following a loss of power Wednesday evening due to the storms.

"One of the plant's diesel generators was out of service for maintenance, but the other seven started to power the units' emergency loads," the commission said in a statement. "Plant operators and Tennessee Valley Authority line crews are working to restore off-site power to all three units."

The plant is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci told CNN no radiation was released as a result of the shutdown, and the plant is currently in a safe shutdown mode.

The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out. The governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

Following the storm as many as a million people in Alabama were without power. Gov. Robert Bentley told reporters 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated and were engaged in search and rescue operations. He complemented the National Weather Service and local forecasters for promply alerting the populace, noting there was only so much that could be done when faced with powerful tornadoes a mile wide.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance.

"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster," Obama said in an official White House statement.

Wednesday's storms followed another system that killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi earlier this week. Less than two weeks earlier, a smaller batch of twisters raced through Alabama, touching off warning sirens, damaging businesses and downing power lines in Tuscaloosa, but there were no deaths there then.

Dave Imy, a meteorologist with the forecast service, told the AFP the deaths were the most since a tornado outbreak killed 315 people in 1974.