© Jim R. Bounds/APEmergency personnel work around a Lowes Home Improvement store after it was hit by a tornado in Sanford, N.C., Saturday.
The massive storm system ripping through the South had killed 39 people in six states as of Sunday morning, and the death toll was expected to rise.

The wave of tornadoes, flash floods and chunks of hail began in Oklahoma on Thursday, killing people there before it claimed lives in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and North Carolina.

North Carolina's governor declared a state of emergency after 62 tornadoes touched down, the most in two decades.

Ten people were already confirmed dead in Bertie County, a hamlet of 21,000 people about 130 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina, county manager Zee Lamb said.

The tornado crashed through at about 7 p.m. on Saturday, destroying homes and sending cars flying through the air as they drove along the county's small rural roads.

An Iraq veteran was among the volunteers sifting through the rubble in search of survivors.

"He did two tours of duty in Iraq and the scene was worse than he ever saw in Iraq - that's pretty devastating," Lamb said.

Across the state, roofs were ripped off buildings, trailers were pummeled and pitched from their foundations and trees were scattered across roads.

Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford was virtually flattened with upside down cars strewn throughout the parking lot.

"It's very, very bad here," said Monica Elliott, who works at the nearby Brick City Grill. "We saw a tornado that just rode up over the restaurant."

A resourceful manager helped to save 100 people at Lowe's by shuffling them all into a windowless back room.

In Virginia, at least four people died after their homes were demolished and flash floods swept through in the wake of a tornado, disaster officials said.

A tragic number of the dead in the past few days were families who were killed while sleeping in their homes.

A lightning-struck tree fell into a home and killed an 18-month-old girl and her father as they slept in Crystal Springs, Ark.

In Little Rock, Ark., winds knocked a tree into a home and killed a woman and her 8-year-old son in his bed.