A powerful winter storm system is behind a spring-like tornado outbreak in the Deep South. People in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are cleaning up after a deadly string of at least 27 tornadoes ripped up homes and tore through neighborhoods.

At least three people were killed, including a husband and wife in northwestern Alabama. The storms were part of a powerful winter weather front, bringing snow and ice to the Northeast Tuesday morning after dumping heavy snow in parts of the Midwest. The system is blamed for at least 12 other deaths.

The rare December tornado outbreak ripped apart homes and businesses across the South, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reports. For many homes, nothing was left standing but the studs.

In Alexandria, Louisiana, most of a school and daycare center was shredded, leaving piles of sheet metal and wood where it once stood. Just 10 minutes before the tornado hit, teachers had led 18 students who were inside the school to the church next door after they received the alert.

The students hid under the pews for safety. Afterward, fire rescue crews wrapped the students in towels and blankets and walked them from the wreckage to safety.

That tornado unleashed its fury along an estimated 63-mile path across the state.

“You could see it was coming, and you could feel it kind of shake the house,” said Monica Ghirardi.

About 130 miles northeast another twister battered the small town of Edwards, Mississippi.

In Vernon Parish, Louisiana, Bettie Patin died after her trailer overturned just one day after her 59th birthday.

“You just wonder why in the world things happen. And you just don’t take life for granted because somebody can be gone in just a second,” said Debbie Brister, Patin’s cousin.

And in Guntown, Mississippi, a Baptist church was destroyed after a tornado touched down there. It was one of at least 35 structures damaged in the town.

According to a police dispatcher, several people were injured but their conditions are unknown. Last night, emergency response teams searched for people who might be in the rubble, as the city remained dark without power.