Members of the Joplin Fire Department, who rode out the tornado in their… (Eric Thayer / Reuters )
Reporting from Joplin, Mo., and Los Angeles — Tense after days of high stress in the wake of a deadly tornado that stormed through Joplin, Mo., residents on Wednesday returned to cleaning up, insisting their efforts were still focused more on rescue than recovery.
The death toll was at least 122, with 750 people hurt and thousands of structures destroyed.
"We are still in a search-and-rescue mode," Mark Rohr, Joplin's city manager, told reporters. "I want to emphasize that."
Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.
Nerves are fraying in this city of about 50,000 hit by a tornado at 6 p.m. Sunday. National Weather Service officials said the storm was an EF5, carrying winds of more than 200 miles an hour.
The battering has taken a toll on the city's psyche as well as its terrain.
At about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night, the tornado sirens sounded, and there was a sudden stampede in the hallways of Joplin's Hilton Garden Inn.
Normally tornado sirens here produce shrugs. People are accustomed to warnings of twisters. But the hotel now is full of people whose houses were pulverized in the deadly tornado that unexpectedly tore through the center of town Sunday.
No one was taking any chances.
Guests and workers alike huddled in a service hallway on the first floor. People found plastic chairs for the elderly. Faces were drawn. Smart phones came out, and people began watching the storm inch toward town.
One prepubescent boy began trembling. His father tried to reassure him. "You're going to go through a lot of these in your life," the man said.
"I'm not living in Joplin," the boy replied with disgust.
The first storm cell passed harmlessly overhead. But a second, bigger one was bearing down. The sirens blew again about 10 p.m..
"This is just nuts," said Christy Simpson, 40.
Jan Goswick, 61, wondered why Joplin was cursed with such bad weather. "Tell us what we did wrong," she quipped, "and we'll stop."
The second cell passed by, also without incident. A radio that someone found reported that the local emergency management office was being extra careful in sounding the second alert because it feared winds up to 75 mph could blow about debris from Sunday's storm.
People sighed in relief and filtered back out to the lobby and their rooms.
The tornado that hit Joplin ranks as the deadliest single twister since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1950. But this year is shaping up as a record-breaker throughout the Midwest.
At least 15 people died in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma in the latest round of storms that moved through the region late Tuesday and in the early Wednesday morning hours. Ten deaths were reported in Oklahoma, three in Arkansas and two in Kansas, officials said.
That brings the tornado toll this year to about 500, close to the record of 519 set in 1953.
Joplin, however, remains the worst hit.
As the search continued Wednesday, officials wondered how many survivors remained to be found after several sweeps through the devastated section of the city.
Schools have been so badly damaged that officials have canceled classes for the remainder of the year.
Riccardi reported from Joplin and Muskal from Los Angeles