© James Robinson/The Fayetteville Observer, via Associated PressA tornado ripped apart a home in Fayetteville, N.C. At least 23 people were reported dead throughout the state.
The reality of the devastation of a storm that sent more than 200 tornadoes ripping across the South, killing at least 45 people and causing millions of dollars in damage, began to sink in Monday morning.

In North Carolina, where the storm killed at least 23 people and put hundreds in the hospital, federal and local emergency workers were fanning out to the areas hardest hit and residents were scrambling to figure out how to help their neighbors or, for the dozens who lost their homes, how to start over.

In the Raleigh area, the police kept residents from a mobile home park with about 200 homes where three young siblings were killed. In sections of this city of about 400,000, several major buildings were damaged and several schools and government offices were closed for the day. Traffic into downtown Raleigh was snarled.

In rural areas, downed cellphone towers and severed utility lines were likely to hamper clean-up efforts.

The storm, which began Wednesday in Oklahoma and charged east for the rest of the week, brought winds as high as 165 miles per hour and spread challenging weather from New York to South Carolina.

Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina, who said she was nearly in tears touring damaged areas Sunday, said she had been in contact with President Obama and anticipated that a federal state of emergency would be declared by week's end.

Ms. Perdue said she met with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday and would continue to tour the state Monday.

"The tornados have left and things are brighter today in North Carolina," she told NBC's Today Show. The state, she said, would survive. "We understand how to face adversity and suck it up."

More than 90 tornadoes - what one meteorologist described as a "family" of them - hit the state on Saturday afternoon. At the Golden Corral in Sanford, N.C., a worker was washing kitchen equipment behind the restaurant when he spotted a giant black funnel-shaped cloud bearing down. He ran to his boss, Terri Rodriguez, who walked out the back door and, after dodging a piece of flying wood, saw a dark whirlwind thick with wood and metal only a couple of blocks away.

About 140 people were eating in her restaurant, many of them in front of the thick plate-glass windows that run the length of the place.

"All I could think is that I have to get them away from the glass because I knew it would just cut them in half," she said in an interview on Sunday. "I thought, where can I put them? Then I yelled: 'Tornado! Everyone to my kitchen!' "

People packed into the meat cooler and behind the stoves. Others jammed into the restrooms. Then they waited. After five minutes, Ms. Rodriguez said, the darkness lifted and she peeked out the back door.

The tornado, she said, had bounced up, skipped the Golden Corral and made a sharp turn, setting down on top of a Lowe's Home Improvement Center a few hundred feet away.

"I could see the roof was just gone and all of the Lowe's stuff flying up in the air," Ms. Rodriguez said.

The Lowe's store in Sanford, a town of about 29,000 in the center of the state, was essentially demolished. But an estimated 70 customers were saved when another fast-thinking manager herded customers and his staff into a windowless storeroom.

The storm killed at least two people in the Sanford area and injured several more, according to Sheriff Tracy Carter of Lee County.

Although April and May are the worst time for tornadoes in the South, this storm system, which had its roots in the Pacific Ocean, was unusual for its size and duration, officials said. The storm would calm itself a bit at night and then gain renewed strength with the day's heat, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It brought flash floods, tornadoes and thunderstorms laced with giant balls of hail to Oklahoma on Thursday, killing two elderly sisters, before moving east through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia.

The effects from the storms could be felt as far as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the New York City area on Saturday night, when furious wind-driven rains covered roadways and produced isolated flooding.

When the system hit North Carolina on Saturday night, it spawned a record 92 tornadoes in the state. At least 14 deaths were in Bertie and Hertford Counties, in a rural northeast corner of the state, and the economic toll there could be especially severe. Now is planting season in North Carolina's farm country, dominated by cotton, tobacco, peanuts, corn and soybeans.

"Some of these farmers may have lost everything they had," said Bob Etheridge, a former congressman who was recently appointed to lead North Carolina's economic recovery efforts. Many farmers do not insure their equipment, and stocks of seeds and fertilizer bought on credit have been ruined, Mr. Etheridege said.

"I think you're going to see some pain for years to come," he said. "A lot of these big farmers may employee 75 to 100 people during the harvest season," so if they cannot plant their crops, the impact on jobs will continue through the summer.

The governor said she also planned to speak to federal officials about assistance to farmers who may need manpower to quickly replow and reseed, she said. "This is the first major agriculture hit that North Carolina has ever had," Ms. Perdue said.

Cal Bryant, the editor of The Roanoke-Chowan News Herald, which serves a part of North Carolina that was most severely hit, said, "Normally the storms that hit here are pretty severe but smaller in size."

"Now they are thinking it may have been one big tornado. They're trying to find where it stopped, and they haven't got there yet."

Mr. Bryant, who spent Sunday with survivors in Bertie County, said rescue crews were going house to house looking for dead or injured residents and assessing damage. At least 60 houses, some of them mobile homes, were destroyed, and he expected the count to go higher.

Scott Sharp, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, said the devastation was due to "a family of tornadoes" that were part of the same thunderstorm system, with one rotating updraft cropping up after another had dissipated.

Still, the storm was not as bad as something meteorologists call "Super Tuesday," when a string of tornadoes in February 2008 claimed 56 lives, said Mr. Carbin of NOAA. But it was unusual in that all of the weather stemmed from one huge storm.

But for many of the states that lay in the path of this system, including North Carolina, which had not seen such severe weather since the early 1990s, it was a storm that will most likely takes months to recover from.

Ms. Perdue, like governors in three other Southern states, declared a state of emergency on Sunday. On Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that it had 12 teams in North Carolina, one in Alabama and three in Mississippi.

In Raleigh, major avenues downtown were blocked by fallen trees. Buildings were flattened in at least eight areas of Wake County, said Sarah Williamson-Baker, a spokeswoman for the county.

Three siblings, who ranged in age from 2 to 5, were killed in a mobile home park in Raleigh when a tree fell on their home. The three were in a bathtub, according to a local news report.

The tornado seemed to make a direct cut through the area, Ms. Williamson-Baker said.

"There's many places where there's little left of buildings, and then in other places nearby, there's almost no damage," she said.

Elizabeth Strauch, 41, lives in the Cranberry Ridge subdivision in Wilson, N.C. Her house was destroyed. When she heard the tornado, she ran to a closet with her cat and some personal belongings.

"What I thought was a tree falling down on the house was my roof falling down and the attic falling through," she said. She opened the door of her closet, pushed back the debris and ran to her neighbors. The whole thing lasted about three minutes.

"I thought I was going to die," Ms. Strauch said. "I was hysterical."

Near Raleigh, dormitories and classrooms at Shaw University, the oldest historically black university in the South, were so damaged that classes were canceled for the rest of the semester.

"After an assessment by experts, I will determine if summer school can be held on campus or will be available only online," the university president, Irma McClaurin, said in a statement. "I think we are blessed that despite tremendous structural damages to dormitories and the Willie Gary Student Union that not one single person (student, faculty, staff or community members) was injured. We can all give thanks for that."

In Sanford, many were grateful, too. John Douglas, 42, a contractor, was inside a tractor supply store when the tornado ripped the roof from the building.

He and a friend jumped on top of his daughter Abby, 9, as part of the ceiling fell on top of them. He suffered a few minor scrapes and bruises, but they all walked away otherwise unhurt.

"Everything was flying around inside the store. You could see the sky through the roof," Mr. Douglas said. "We just prayed to the Lord to help us through this."

Around the parts of the Southern states that were hardest hit, volunteers began organizing food drives and fund-raisers. Many people were connecting through Facebook and Twitter, and others were simply showing up to see how they might help.

In Sanford, the Salvation Army thrift store opened its doors at 3 p.m. and two hours later had already accepted about 400 bags of clothes and household goods, said Derek Oley, 29, the manager. They will start supplying food to people Monday.

"This community is just so awesome right now," Mr. Oley said. "People are just coming out from everywhere to help out."

The National Weather service warned that parts of the Midwest should prepare for more severe weather on Tuesday, predicting possible strong tornados and large on Tuesday afternoon and evening in the Ozarks and the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.