Residents of Atkins, Arkansas were thankful to be alive Thursday as they began a huge clean-up operation after a band of tornados ripped across southern states, killing 55 people.

"The neighbors were on their porch, they said they saw the house going up in the air and explode," said farmer Clay Dixon, 43, in a part of the town which was razed by the tornado.

"I'm just glad I'm still alive," he said, surveying the damage left by the deadly storms here in which a couple and their 11-year-old daughter died.

Dozens of tornadoes sliced across the region late Tuesday and early Wednesday, leaving a trail of destruction in five states and deaths in four, in what US media called the deadliest US tornado outbreak in two decades.

Dixon had been feeding his calves when he heard the tornado sirens sound the warning. Abandoning his tractor, he took refuge in the basement of his sister-in-law's house, with his wife and 18-year-old daughter.

On returning home, he found only flattened ruins.

The white four-wheel-drive car, which he had parked in the garage, was lying in a nearby field Thursday. The trailer was twisted into just a heap of iron.

About 50 people tried to help him search the debris to find anything which remained from his family's belongings, but in vain. They found just a few photographs, including a torn one of his daughter's graduation ceremony.

"The toilets, the tubes, everything is gone. All we got left is blocks and trees," Dixon said.

"This house was built in the 50s. I bought it 13 years ago. I fixed it. I renovated it, I worked on it for pretty much all the time we lived there.

"Now it is hard to know where to start."

Next door, the parents of 33-year-old Tinna Ennis had been looking after their young grandchildren when they heard the alarm.

"They took their car and they drove away," Ennis said. They had just got onto the road when they saw the tornado twist furiously along its path behind them.

The roof of the house was ripped off, and the walls were so buckled they will have to be rebuilt. The car which had been parked in the front of the house is now behind it, and some of the furniture was blown into other rooms.

But a pair of earrings were still where they had ben placed beside the sink.

Ennis said she is grateful her parents and nephews made it through alive. "All this stuff can be fixed and replaced," she said.

Even the family's Labrador who was scooped up by the winds in his kennel was found several hours later, frantically wagging his tail when he saw them.

A friend has lent them a caravan to stay in as they comb the house and outbuildings for salvageable belongings with the help of friends and colleagues.

It is set to be a long hard road. Behind the house, national guard helicopters regularly flew over a water-logged field clogged with debris, bits of wood and metal, shoes, even a teddy bear.

Just a few hundred yards (meters) away, bulldozers were already hard at work, removing fallen trees and heavy debris.

The skyline was spotted with trails of smoke as piles of debris were burned in a bid to clear the land fast.

In hardest hit Tennessee, the death toll stood at 31, with one other person presumed missing, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.

Thirteen people were killed in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama, and hundreds of people were injured in those states and in Mississippi, officials said.

The worst barrage of tornadoes in recent memory in the region left up to 35,000 people around Memphis powerless early Wednesday and facing up to a week for power to be restored.