Madison, Miss. David Dykes found his wedding ring in a pile of debris in his neighbor's yard Sunday as he and other residents searched for their belongings amid the destruction caused by a killer tornado.
"There's been some spoofing between all of us that we've got 72 hours to clean up each other's properties before we start charging storage fees," Dykes said.
"Yesterday was pretty emotional. Today you've got to see the humor in it," he said. "The fact of the matter is, if we'd been home we'd be dead."
A tornado with wind estimated at 200 mph tore through his neighborhood Saturday, part of a system of thunderstorms and tornadoes that killed five people and injured 112 in Mississippi. The same big storm system was blamed for four deaths each in Alabama and Arkansas.
Madison County Sheriff Troy Trowbridge said lives were saved by a tornado siren just a mile from Dykes' upper-middle class neighborhood and by the Thanksgiving weekend.
"A lot of people just weren't home, thankfully," Trowbridge said.
Dykes and his wife, Pat, were among those who were away when the storm struck. They rushed back from a visit to Alabama after a friend called them with the news; as they got close to home they heard a report about their house.
"We heard on the radio that there was nothing but a slab and a white BMW and we knew that was us," said Pat Dykes.
When they arrived, they burst into tears, she said, in part because their house was gone and in part because 25 friends were already there, trying to save their valuables.
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove declared a state of emergency in nine counties, and said Sunday he was impressed with how swiftly neighbors, friends and emergency workers responded to the disaster.
"All responded immediately in a sense of helpfulness and hope for their neighbors," Musgrove said. "That's the Mississippi that I know and am proud of."
The worst of Arkansas' storm damage late Friday and early Saturday was in the state's northwest and southeast corners, but downed trees and power lines were scattered across much of the state.
"We've got our lives. That's all that matters," said Sue Mobley, whose home near McRae, Ark., was plucked off its foundation and its wreckage thrown for miles. When she got home from work after the tornado, her dog was standing where her house once stood.
In Alabama, Lisa Mackey said she saw the approach of a tornado. "I could see all the debris in the air from where it hit," she said.
At Altoona, Ala., Fire Chief Dewayne Walldrop watched a tornado from the fire department's front door. "It was just one big white cloud touching the ground," Walldrop said. "The sound was horrendous. It had that horrible loud roar to it."