Tornado Kills At Least 89 As It Slams Missouri Town

May 23, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Emergency workers raced to find survivors a day after a ferocious tornado killed at least 89 people as it cleaved the southwest Missouri city of Joplin virtually in half.

The tornado touched down Sunday evening and cut a path six miles long and a half a mile wide through the center of town, ripping off the top of a main hospital, flinging big-rigs to the side of the road and reducing neighborhoods to splinters and twisted metal.

Fire chief Mitch Randles estimated that one-third of the city was damaged, and said his own home was among the buildings destroyed as the twister swept through this city of about 50,000 people some 160 miles south of Kansas City.

Former Mayor Gary Shaw said Joplin looked like a war zone.

"The trees ... they're like somebody's taken a knife and cut all the bark off of them," Shaw told NPR. "We've lost tons and tons of homes, and we have people out trying to uncover the dead right now."

Officials feared the death toll was likely to rise as dawn broke over the city and rescue teams hurried to locate survivors. Their task was likely to be made more miserable as a fresh storm moved into the area. It was not expected to produce new tornadoes, but lightning, high winds and heavy rains were likely to hamper an already delicate door-to-door search.

An unknown number of people were injured in the storm, and officials said patients were scattered to any nearby hospitals that could take them.

The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. One person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst of the day, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.

Among the worst-hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center. The staff had just minutes' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.

In the parking lot, a helicopter lay crushed on its side, its rotors torn apart and windows smashed. Nearby, a pile of cars lay crumpled into a single mass of twisted metal.

"Every window in that building is now broken," City Council member Melodee Colbert-Kean told NPR. "Cars are tumbled all over the parking lot. I do know that the people in there had ... precious few minutes to get out into the parking lot, to get people in the safety corridor of the hospital."

Miranda Lewis, a spokeswoman for St. John's, was at home when the tornado sirens began going off. Early Monday, she had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike, although she had seen the damaged building.

"It's like what you see someplace else, honestly," Lewis told The Associated Press. "That's a terrible way to say it, but you don't recognize what's across the street. I had seen it on television, but until you're standing right here and see the devastation, you can't believe it."

Missy Shelton of KSMU reported that the city was eerily quiet, punctuated now and then by the sound of a siren, as people wandered around and took in the utter destruction.

"They're walking around in a daze," Shelton said. "Even people who've lived here for years and years are having trouble finding their way around because the street signs are gone and nothing looks familiar."

Triage centers and shelters set up around the city quickly filled to capacity. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, nurses and other emergency workers from across the region were treating critically injured patients.

At another makeshift unit at a Lowe's home improvement store, wooden planks served as beds. Outside, ambulances and fire trucks waited for calls. During one stretch after midnight Monday, emergency vehicles were scrambling nearly every two minutes.

Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.

President Obama said Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with state and local agencies, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told CNN that he has dispatched National Guard troops to Joplin to help the city cope with the emergency.

"We stand ready to put additional Guard boots on the ground if necessary, but it's going to be a stark view as people see dawn rise in Joplin, Mo.," he said.

Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations. Authorities said areas of the city were still dangerous because of downed power lines, jagged debris and a series of gas leaks that caused fires overnight.

An aching helplessness settled over residents, many of whom could only wander the wreckage bereft and wondering about the fate of loved ones.

Justin Gibson, 30, huddled with three relatives outside the tangled debris field of what remained of a Home Depot. He pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into the store's ruins and said it belonged to his roommate's brother.

"He was last seen here with his two little girls," ages 4 and 5. We've been trying to get a hold of him since the tornado happened," Gibson told the AP, adding his own house had been leveled.

"It's just gone. Everything in that neighborhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can't get a hold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are," he said, referring to his three children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years.

"I don't know the extent of this yet," Gibson said, "but I know I'll have friends and family dead."

City Council member Colbert-Kean said scores of people had been unable to contact loved ones as of early Monday and that cell phone coverage was intermittent.

"There have been social media sites set up, to where people are alerting others to say, 'Hey, your loved one has been found,' or posting that someone has been missing. So everyone's just trying to pitch in and help any way they can as far as communication, as far as needing a ride. Just anything and anywhere they can help," she said.

"Anything that can be done is needed — water, food, shelter, a hug, a payer — anything that can be done is needed right now and appreciated."

Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reported from Joplin, Mo., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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