Monday, May 23, 2011

Officials: Tornado death toll at 116

Officials on Monday afternoon raised the death toll from a catastrophic Midwestern tornado to 116 as more than 1,000 firefighters and search-and-rescue teams from across the Midwest and as far away as Little Rock, Ark., converged on Joplin, Mo., and dug through debris in a massive search for survivors.
  • More than 500 have been injured after a twister viciously cut through this city of 50,000 about 160 miles south of Kansas City, according to officials.
    By Julie Denesha, Getty Images
    More than 500 have been injured after a twister viciously cut through this city of 50,000 about 160 miles south of Kansas City, according to officials.
By Julie Denesha, Getty Images
More than 500 have been injured after a twister viciously cut through this city of 50,000 about 160 miles south of Kansas City, according to officials.
More than 500 have been injured after a twister viciously cut through this city of 50,000 about 160 miles south ofKansas City, according to officials.
Among the searchers were residents who picked through rubble as another brief but severe storm hampered search efforts and rescuers warned the death toll could climb.
The killer tornado sliced a 6-mile swath through southwestern Missouri, hitting Joplin, destroying a hospital, flattening a high school, slamming cars into buildings and splintering the bark off trees.
Carthage Fire Chief Chris Thompson, in Joplin to help, described the scene as "catastrophic."
Crews found bodies in vehicles the storm had flipped over, torn apart and left crushed like empty cans. Triage centers and temporary shelters quickly filled to capacity. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, emergency workers treated critically injured patients.
At another makeshift unit at a Lowe's home improvement store, wooden planks served as beds. Outside, ambulances and fire trucks waited for calls. In the early hours of the morning, emergency vehicles were scrambling nearly every two minutes.
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., said he visited a shelter staffed by the Red Cross.
"It's just heart-wrenching to hear people call in looking for loved ones," Long said.
At the athletic center fieldhouse of Missouri Southern State University, a volunteer called out for George Ballew.
"Your wife is OK," the volunteer told Ballew. "We just found her."
The 48-year-old personal finance officer, his left hand wrapped in gauze, bowed his head and began weeping. "Oh thank God," he said, collapsing into the volunteer's arms. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
The two-story apartment complex across the street from St. John's Regional Medical Center where Ballew lived with his wife, Deborah, was leveled. She was at work as a nurse at the hospital when the storm hit.
Afterward, Ballew walked outside. "I glanced back at the apartment and it was completely gone," Ballew said. "As I got to the parking lot, I don't think there was a car that wasn't overturned and smashed."
The damage was breathtaking in scope.
"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," said resident Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."
The new storm that hit Monday as rescuers went door-to-door brought heavy rain, hail and high winds.
"It's definitely not making the process any easier," said National Weather Servicemeteorologist Doug Cramer.
Gov. Jay Nixon was traveling Monday afternoon to Joplin. He said he remained hopeful that rescuers would find more survivors as heavy equipment and cranes arrive to remove the rubble.
"It's incredible destruction. It just ground into the town," Nixon said. "This has been a terrible tragedy with many, many deaths, many, many injuries."
A huge storm system dropped the tornado into the heart of Joplin Sunday evening.
Cramer said a team of meteorologists was en route to Joplin to begin determining the path and devastation of the tornado. He said meteorologists had not determined the scale of the tornado nor did they have a solid number of dead or injured.
Roger Dedick and his wife survived the storm by taking shelter in the couple's garage, which is partly underground. There are no walls on the house the couple lived in for 17 years.
"That's all that's left," Dedick said, pointing to a section of foundation with a small stairwell.
Dedick said his ears popped as the tornado blew the windows out of the garage. He said he had to use a metal bar to pry his way out of the rubble of his home.
Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said about 2,000 buildings were damaged. Joplin fire chief Mitch Randles estimated the damage covered a quarter or more of the city.
More than 18,000 were without power Monday afternoon, according to Empire District Electric, the power company that serves 215,000 customers in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Officers from the city and neighboring towns and counties manned virtually every major intersection. Ambulances came and went, sirens blaring. Rescuers involved in a door-to-door search moved gingerly around downed power lines and jagged debris. A series of gas leaks caused fires around the city overnight and some were still burning early Monday.
City Manager Mark Rohr's home was among the buildings destroyed.
The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. One person was killed in Minneapolis.
The devastation in Missouri was the worst of the day, reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
The Joplin tornado traveled six miles from the west side of the city to the southeast portion of the city, reports AccuWeather meteorologist Brian Edwards, with the southern edge of the city the hardest hit. The tornado ranged from half a mile to three-quarters of a mile wide.
While the exact strength of the storm is yet to be determined, it could be upwards of an EF4.
An EF4 tornado has wind speeds that range from 166 to 200 mph. If the storm is an EF4, it would likely be the strongest tornado on record in Joplin, according to Weather Channel severe storm expert Greg Forbes.
Among the worst-hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center. The staff had just a few moments' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.
Jim Riscoe, a staff physician, arrived at the hospital soon after the tornado hit and he said it looked like it had been in a nuclear disaster.
Riscoe compared the carnage to what he saw when he responded to the Hyatt Regencydisaster in Kansas City in 1981 and the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year.
He said some staff members who responded to the hospital after the storm already were injured but worked through the night.
St. John's patients were evacuated to other hospitals in the region, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the medical center's sister hospital in Springfield.
Early Monday morning, floodlights from a temporary triage facility lit what remained of the hospital that once held as many 367 patients. Police officers combed the surrounding area for bodies.
Miranda Lewis, a spokeswoman for St. John's, was at home when the tornado sirens began going off. Early Monday, she had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike, although she had seen the damaged building.
"It's like what you see someplace else, honestly," Lewis said. "That's a terrible way to say it, but you don't recognize what's across the street.
Michael Spencer, a national Red Cross spokesman who assisted in the aftermath of a tornado that devastated nearby Pierce City in 2003, was stunned.
"I've been to about 75 disasters, and I've never seen anything quite like this before," Spencer said. "You don't typically see metal structures and metal frames torn apart, and that's what you see here."
Winds from the storm carried debris up to 60 miles away. Medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items fell to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
Travel through and around Joplin was difficult as Interstate 44 was shut down and streets were clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.
An aching helplessness settled over residents, many of whom could only wander the wreckage bereft and wondering about the fate of loved ones.
Justin Gibson, 30, huddled with three relatives outside the tangled debris field of what remained of the Home Depot. He pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into the store's ruins and said it belonged to his roommate's brother. "He was last seen here with his two little girls," ages 4 and 5, Gibson said.
"We've been trying to get ahold of him since the tornado happened," Gibson said, adding his own house had been leveled.
"It's just gone. Everything in that neighborhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can't get ahold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are," he said, referring to his three children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years.
"I don't know the extent of this yet," Gibson said, "but I know I'll have friends and family dead."
With 116 deaths in the Joplin tornado, tornadoes have killed 482 people so far this year in the USA, according to meteorologist Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
More tornadoes are expected across the nation's midsection through the middle of the week, but it is unlikely that any outbreak will be as widespread as one that hit the South last month.

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