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Joplin races to find survivors after Missouri city hit by tornado

The death toll, 116, is likely to climb, officials say. Rescuers in Joplin, where whole neighborhoods were smashed by Sunday's tornado, try to beat out an approaching storm. But a lack of supplies, closed roadways and downed power lines stand in their way.

May 23, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • Mary Womack, in white top, reacts to the news that the renter who lived in her Joplin house had been found and taken to a hospital.
Mary Womack, in white top, reacts to the news that the renter who lived in… (Mike Gullett / Associated…)

Reporting from Joplin, Mo., and Los Angeles — The city of Joplin was changed from a typical small Missouri city into a zone of frenzied effort after Sunday's tornado as rescuers raced bad weather and coped with a shortage of supplies. At least 116 people were killed in the tornado, and the toll is expected to rise.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr announced the latest death toll at a Monday afternoon news conference, according to the Associated Press. Rohr said seven people had been rescued.

By midmorning Monday, about 20 hours after the tornado tore a six-mile wound in the heart of the city, residents searched through the rubble in what reminded many of a war zone. Some houses in the center of the tornado's path were no longer structures at all — just slabs of concrete surrounded by tangled piles of personal electronics, tennis shoes, childhood photos and box fans. All the detritus of private lives were strewn for the public eye to see.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

In one neighborhood, the roof of a home, which had no walls, was propped up by an overturned white pickup. Nearby, an AT&T store was nothing but a flattened, knotted cage of metal.

David Utter, 26, stood outside a brick home on a residential street, waiting to see if a missing friend and his 3-year-old son would return. Utter said he had been driving in his white minivan when the twister hit.

"The rain started going sideways, and it lifted us up and pushed us into the oncoming lane," he said. His wife, Misty Kelso, and two children, 19 months and 3 years old, were in the car with him. They were unharmed, as was their van.

"I've lived here my whole life," Kelso said, "and I no longer recognize where I am."

Search-and-rescue teams on Monday pored through the rubble and wreckage, all that was left in many areas of Joplin, where officials say more than 2,000 structures were ripped apart and whole neighborhoods obliterated in what was being called the worst tornado to hit the state.

Would-be rescuers conducted door-to-door searches, avoiding downed power lines that had ignited fires fueled by leaking gas. Debris was a constant danger and a barrier to search teams.

"We still believe there are people to be saved in the rubble," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters, describing the disaster. He warned that another storm was on the way, complicating rescue efforts.

President Obama expressed his condolences in a telephone call to Nixon from Ireland, where Obama is visiting, the White House said. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate will head to Joplin to coordinate federal disaster relief, said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

Speaking on television, Nixon said it was good to speak directly with the president and that Missouri would welcome all of the help available.

More than 40 agencies were involved in the search-and-rescue effort, which was racing against the arrival of the next storm. Nixon said communications equipment was crucial in coordinating the rescue and relief efforts, which are being complicated by transportation difficulties. Interstate 44 was shut down, and streets were clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.

"This is a developing situation," the governor said, "but we believe that there is a significant potential for saving lives."

The number of deaths stood at 89, but Mayor Pro Tem Melodee Colbert-Kean told reporters that the toll was likely to rise.

"While we haven't heard, it is expected to rise drastically," she said. "We don't know how high it can go. We're praying it wouldn't climb too high."

The weather was worsening, with severe thunderstorms expected, she said. "We're waiting to see if the siren goes off again."

It was the piercing keen of sirens that shook the city of 50,000 at about 6 p.m. Sunday. Most agreed that the weather warning system worked, going off about half an hour before the brunt of the storm hit.

But the tornado was traveling so fast, Colbert-Kean said, that the danger was on the city before most had a chance to deal with the threat.

More than 2,000 structures were damaged, including a major hospital, St. John's Regional Medical Center. Perhaps 30% of the city, about 160 miles from Kansas City, was damaged. An unknown number of people were injured, and many were treated in makeshift shelters in churches, Colbert-Kean said.

The roof was blown off the hospital, and most patients were evacuated. A local nursing home also took a direct hit, city officials said.

The tornado that hit Joplin was one of 68 reported across seven Midwest states, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. At least one person was killed in Minneapolis.

But Missouri was by far the hardest hit in a season that has seen more than 300 people killed by tornadoes in the South last month. The South has also been dealing with massive flooding that killed one person and has caused billions of dollars in damage to property and crops.

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