By Jon Nielsen
LANCASTER, Texas (Reuters) - Huddled inside a closet with his wife and 9-month-old daughter, Quental Austin could hear bricks and two-by-fours clattering as a tornado ravaged his Lancaster, Texas, neighborhood on Tuesday.
During just the couple of minutes he was in that closet, the tornado - one of more than a dozen that damaged hundreds of Dallas-area homes and left tens of thousands without power - lifted the roof off his home, shattered the windows of his Yukon Denali and peeled one of the SUV's doors onto the hood.
"When we opened the door, we were outside," Austin said on Wednesday in the city south of Dallas where a dozen people were injured. In what some called a miracle, no one was killed.
The storm that tore through Lancaster with what National Weather Service meteorologists said were winds of up to 130 miles per hour reminded some of the 1994 tornado that hit the city, destroying the town square and killing three people.
On Wednesday, as residents of Lancaster and other hard-hit areas such as Arlington, Kennedale and Forney stood amid upturned cars, flattened homes and furniture sucked out into yards, the number of structures damaged in the region grew to more than 600, according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
That number is likely too low. A State Farm insurance spokeswoman in Texas said via Twitter that the company had already received nearly 4,500 home and auto claims in the first 24 hours following the storm. Insured loss estimates were hard to come by, though damage was expected to reach at least into the many tens of millions of dollars, if not higher.
American Red Cross teams were surveying damage and handing out trash bags and work gloves to people sifting through rubble. Some 150 people spent Tuesday night in Red Cross shelters in Dallas and Lancaster.
In Lancaster, where insulation and clothing were hanging from treetops, the local animal shelter searched for pets.
Many people were at work when the tornado hit, but Whittaker Hardin was at home in Lancaster watching a movie. He grabbed his Bible and headed to his bathtub for safety.
"It shows you that God is in control of everything and every once in a while he gives us a gut-check," Hardin said. "It was one of those things that I never want to go through again."
Lancaster Mayor Marcus Knight vowed, "We will bounce back."
In Arlington, a Dallas suburb, fire and police officials set up a tornado recovery center to help those affected get services.
In Coppell, another Dallas suburb, Wednesday found many people dealing with damaged vehicles. Baseball-sized hail pounded cars, breaking out both front and back windshields in many cases.
The early warning for the afternoon storm on Tuesday gave many of the area's 6.3 million residents time to scramble for safety in homes, businesses and schools, officials said.
After touring damaged areas of Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings said it was a miracle that no was killed or severely injured.
"We are very, very fortunate that there were no fatalities or major injuries. If there is a silver lining in this, that is it," Rawlings said.
Preliminary information shows that 13 tornadoes struck in the Dallas-Fort Worth, the fourth most populous U. S. metropolitan area, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Greg Patrick. The area commonly experiences tornadoes, but this type of outbreak is rare, he said.
More than 14,000 homes and businesses remained without power on Wednesday from Texas to Mississippi.
Some 500 American Airlines and American Eagle flights in and out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport had been canceled Wednesday, said Tim Smith, a company spokesman.
About 1,400 people slept in airport terminals Tuesday night after the storms and an as yet undetermined number of passengers stranded by canceled flights were directed to area hotels, airport spokesman David Magana said.
While the storm concentrated most of its force on Texas, there were reports of stormy weather consisting of high winds and hail overnight in 11 other states including North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
There were unconfirmed reports of a tornado near New Orleans and heavy rain pelted the area, producing widespread street flooding, the weather service said. Forecasts called for up to 6 inches of rain through Wednesday evening with a flash flood watch.
The U.S. tornado season started early this year. Tornadoes have been blamed for 57 deaths so far in 2012, raising fears of a repeat of 2011, the deadliest year in nearly a century with 550 lives lost.
(Reporting by Marice Richter, Judy Wiley, Corrie MacLaggan, Kathy Finn, Scott DiSavino, Kyle Peterson, Ben Berkowitz and David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune)