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Joplin, Mo., tornado is deadliest since 1953; toll at 117

17 people have been rescued from the rubble left by Sunday's tornado, but officials say efforts will continue throughout the day: 'We hope to find more folks.'

May 24, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Joplin, Mo., and Los Angeles — The death toll from the tornado that crushed Joplin has risen to 117, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said on Tuesday, making it the deadliest such event in the U.S. since 1953.

Speaking on the morning television shows, Nixon said the toll had risen overnight, but he stressed that rescue efforts will continue throughout the day. He was optimistic, especially since the stormy weather had cleared.

"We have suffered a devastating loss," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr told reporters at a televised news conference.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

"We will recover and we will recover strongly," Rohr said, "more strongly than when we began."

Fire Chief Mitch Randles said rescuers were still finding survivors, adding, "We hope to find more folks" as the efforts continue through the day. As of Monday night, 17 people had been rescued.

Rohr said rescuers had completed two full sweeps of the devastation and continued to find survivors. A third sweep was scheduled for later Tuesday, and officials said they would conduct one more after that before the mission changed to recovery mode, rather than rescue.

City officials praised volunteers and supplies that had been arriving. They also thanked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its efforts, which were pledged by President Obama after the tornado struck.

The tornado hit Joplin about 6 p.m. Sunday, cutting a six-mile swath through the city. More than 2,000 structures were leveled.

With a death toll of 117, this week's disaster surpasses the single deadliest tornado in the U.S., on April 27, 1953, according to National Weather Service records. That tornado hit Flint, Mich., and 116 were killed.

Just last month, tornadoes swept through six Southern states, killing at least 314 people, mostly in Alabama. But those deaths were from multiple tornadoes. The record death toll from a multiple event was 747 in 1925.

City officials said they will test the siren system Tuesday morning and warned residents not to panic. It was the keening whine of sirens that alerted people Sunday night to the twister, which was traveling so fast, there was little time to find shelter.

The tornado destroyed "thousands" of homes in this city of about 50,000, Fire Chief Randles said, as well as demolishing hundreds of businesses.

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told NBC's "Today" show Tuesday that Obama had declared a disaster in the area, which means residents are eligible for his agency's assistance.

"We're here for the long haul," Fugate said, "not just for the response."

Fugate, Gov. Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill were viewing the damage Tuesday by helicopter.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

Riccardi reported from Joplin and Muskal from Los Angeles.

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