At least 89 people have died in Joplin, Missouri, and the toll is expected to climb as one of the deadliest tornadoes in state history roared through the small Midwestern city Sunday, local officials said Monday.
Rescue crews from throughout the region worked through the night in the town of about 50,000 people in search of the dead and injured and to aid those left homeless.
Officials said they expected to find more bodies with first light on Monday as they dig through the rubble.
The tornado blew the roof off one hospital with about 180 patients and some 2,000 other buildings were destroyed.
“It is a significant tragedy,” said Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. “We’re working on all cylinders. We’ve got to get an active and complete search … to make sure if there is anyone still alive in the rubble that we get them out.”
The path of the tornado through Joplin was estimated at six miles long and about 1/2 mile to 3/4 mile wide.
“The loss of life is incredible,” said Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston. “We’re still trying to find people. The outlook is pretty bleak.”
A temporary morgue was set up at the Missouri Southern State University, and a local concert hall served as a shelter for people whose homes and businesses had been wiped out.
The devastation surpasses that seen last month when a twister struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing more than 30 in that storm.
The governor declared a state of emergency and ordered Missouri National Guard troops deployed to help state troopers and other agencies respond to storms that he said “have caused extensive damage across Missouri.”
Joplin City Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean, who serves as vice mayor, said the town was in a state of “chaos.”
“It is just utter devastation anywhere you look to the south and the east — businesses, apartment complexes, houses, cars, trees, schools, you name it, it is leveled, leveled,” she told Reuters by telephone early on Monday.
Stammer estimated that about 10 percent of the city, encompassing about 2,000 structures, had borne the brunt of the storm, based on initial aerial surveillance.
President Barack Obama issued a statement expressing his “deepest condolences” to families of the victims. He said he had directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support response and recovery efforts.
A White House official said Obama was briefed multiple times about the tornadoes on the Air Force One flight to Ireland.
ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS DESTROYED
The storm flattened whole neighborhoods, splintering trees, flipped cars and trucks upside down and into each other.
One local hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, took a direct hit. More than 180 patients were inside at the time, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for a sister facility in Springfield, Missouri, just east of Joplin.
“It is extensive damage,” Scott said. “The roof is gone. A lot of the windows are blown out.
Carla Tabares said she, her husband and several families with children squeezed into the kitchen cooler of an Outback Steakhouse restaurant in town when the twister neared, huddling in the chilled darkness until the howling of the storm passed.
“It was really awful, really scary,” she said. The restaurant was largely unscathed, but other buildings were badly damaged. “I’m just thankful we got out alive, and I really feel sorry for the people who didn’t.”
Joplin-area resident Denise Bayless, 57, told Reuters that many buildings on Main Street were obliterated and the town’s only high school was burning.
She and her husband were at church when their adult son called to say the tornado was hitting his house, and the couple got in their car to drive to his aid.
“We just had to weave in and out of debris. Power lines were down everywhere, and you could smell gas,” she said.
After stopping to assist a woman they heard screaming, trapped inside her home, Bayless said she ran five blocks to her son’s house, where she found every home on the street — some 20 dwellings including his — were gone.
“I just lost all my bearings. There was nothing that looked familiar,” said Bayless, whose son was unhurt.
Beth Peacock, manager of a concert hall in town said several hundred people converged on the facility seeking shelter and medical treatment after the storm struck.
Steve Runnels, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the tornado appeared to have been very powerful.
“We have reports of significant structural damage to strong buildings,” he said. “Automobiles have been flipped, bark was stripped off trees.”
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam, David Bailey, Colleen Jenkins and Chris Michaud; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh)
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