JOPLIN, Mo. - A massive tornado that tore a 6-mile path across southwestern Missouri killed at least 125 people as it slammed into the city of Joplin, ripping into a hospital, crushing cars like soda cans and leaving a forest of splintered tree trunks behind where entire neighborhoods once stood.
Authorities warned that the death toll could climb as search and rescuers continued their work. Their task was made more miserable Monday morning May 23 as a thunderstorm with strong, gusty winds and heavy rain pelted part of the city with quarter-size hail.
Dramatic capture of fury of Joplin tornado.
City manager Mark Rohr announced an initial number of known dead at a predawn news conference outside the wreckage of a hospital that took a direct hit from Sunday's storm. Mr. Rohr said the twister cut a path nearly 6 miles long and more than a half-mile wide through the center of town, adding that tornado sirens gave residents about a 20-minute warning before the tornado touched down on the city's west side.
Much of the city's south side was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins. Fire chief Mitch Randles estimated 25 percent to 30 percent 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.
An unknown number of people were injured in the storm, and officials said patients were scattered to any nearby hospitals that could take them.
Authorities conducted a door-to-door search of the damaged area May 23, moving gingerly around downed power lines, jagged debris and a series of gas leaks that caused fires around the city overnight.
Gov. Jay Nixon said May 23 that fires from gas leaks still burned across the city.
“It's a very, very precarious situation,” Gov. Nixon told CNN. “It's going to be a stark view as people see dawn rise in Joplin, Missouri.” Residents said the damage was breathtaking in scope.
“You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like,” said Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School. “I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw.”
The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the May 22 weekend, stretching 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, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
The Sunday May 22 storm in Joplin hit a hospital packed with patients and a commercial area including a Home Depot construction store, numerous smaller businesses and restaurants and a grocery store. Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said an estimated 2,000 buildings were damaged.
Among the worst-hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center. The staff had just a few moments' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.
Michael Spencer, a national Red Cross spokesman who also assisted in the aftermath of a tornado that devastated nearby Pierce City in 2003, was also stunned. “I've been to about 75 disasters, and I've never seen anything quite like this before,” Mr. Spencer said. “You don't typically see metal structures and metal frames torn apart, and that's what you see here.”
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.
Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations. Gov. Nixon declared a state of emergency, and President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with state and local agencies.
An aching helplessness settled over residents, many of whom could only wander the wreckage bereft and wonder about the fate of loved ones.
A tornado that hit north Minneapolis killed one person and injured 29. Authorities imposed an overnight curfew over a 4-square-mile area, including some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, to prevent looting and keep streets clear for emergency crews.
Additional storms were predicted across the southern Plains. An advisory from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said warm weather May 23 could fuel instability in advance of another weather system. A few tornadoes, some strong—starting in Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the afternoon and in North Texas in the late afternoon were possible at Final Call press time. (AP)