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Deadly tornadoes continue to plague Midwest

Tornadoes hit Oklahoma and Arkansas, resulting in 14 deaths and hampering cleanup and rescue efforts. Severe storms are brewing over eastern Kansas and are expected to roll across Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. The storm season's death toll nears 500 in the South and Midwest.

May 25, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Nicholas Riccardi and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the Joplin Fire Department, who rode out the tornado in their station, stand in front of a destroyed market.
Members of the Joplin Fire Department, who rode out the tornado in their… (Eric Thayer / Reuters )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo. and Los Angeles — Tornadoes roared through the Midwest on Wednesday, further spreading death and damage and threatening rescue and cleanup efforts in some already hard-hit areas.

At least 14 deaths have been reported in recent days in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and the death toll in Joplin, Mo., stood at about 122 from the single deadliest tornado since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1950.

Severe storms began brewing Wednesday afternoon over eastern Kansas and were expected to roll across Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Indiana and Kentucky, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the National Storm Prediction Center. Joplin is expected to be spared the brunt of the storms but should receive some heavy showers throughout the day, Carbin said.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

At least two weak tornadoes were reported on Wednesday near Kansas City, Mo., according to the National Weather Service. Illinois and Indiana were under tornado watches. As the storm plows through the midsection of the nation, tornadoes are possible from Ohio to Tennessee, officials said.

A tornado was reported south of Chicago and hundreds of flights delayed at O'Hare International Airport, according to the Chicago Tribune. The twister in Kankakee County, about 60 miles south of Chicago, damaged silos, trees and roofs of several buildings, said Pembroke Fire Protection District Chief Mark Baines. No major injuries were reported.

At O'Hare International Airport, about 550 flights had been canceled as of 10:30 a.m. local time due to rain and low visibility, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. There were delays of up to three hours. Midway Airport was experiencing delays of 45 minutes or more and some cancellations.

Oklahoma seemed to be the worst hit in the current wave of storms, with at least eight reported deaths and 70 injuries in Oklahoma City and its environs. One of those killed was a 15-month-old boy. Valerie Thomerson, mayor of Piedmont, Okla., told Fox News that officials were looking for at least one toddler.

At least six deaths were reported in Kansas and Arkansas. Authorities were investigating reports of a death in Texas.

The new wave of tornadoes threatens to make this already difficult storm season a record-breaker in the Midwest and the South. So far, the death toll is about 500, close to the record of 519 set in 1953.

The tornado that hit Joplin ranks as the deadliest single twister since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1950. The death toll there was at 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."

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 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.

As the search in Joplin 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.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.muskal

Riccardi reported from Joplin and Muskal and Ceasar reported from Los Angeles.

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