At least 89 people have died in Joplin, Missouri, and the toll is expected to climb after a monster tornado roared through the small Midwestern city on Sunday afternoon, local officials said yesterday.
Search teams bathed in the harsh glow of floodlights early yesterday picked through rubble of neighborhoods and commercial districts demolished by the tornado.
“We are recovering the dead,” Joplin police Sergeant Bob Higginbotham said hours after the powerful twister struck on Sunday afternoon, leaving much of the town of 50,000 residents in ruins and plunging the city into darkness once night fell.
Higginbotham was busy collecting the names of people reported missing.
“[It’s a] devastating loss of life, horrible, and it goes on for miles,” he said.
A White House official said US President Barack Obama was briefed multiple times about the tornadoes on the Air Force One flight to Ireland and asked his staff to stay in close touch with state and local authorities.
The loss of life from this twister surpassed that of a storm that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last month. More than 30 died in that storm.
Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges said a temporary morgue was set up at the Missouri Southern State University.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and ordered Missouri National Guard troops deployed to help state troopers and other agencies respond to storms 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 said early yesterday.
Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Jasper County, where Joplin is located, 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 showing that the tornado had cut a swath about 9.5km long and 800m to 1.2km wide through town.
The storm followed an earlier burst of violent spring weather in the US that claimed more than 330 lives as tornadoes swept seven states last month. That included 238 deaths in Alabama alone on April 27 as twisters battered Tuscaloosa and other towns.
Obama issued a statement expressing his “deepest condolences” to families of the Missouri victims. He said he had directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support response and recovery efforts.
Video footage carried on the Weather Channel and local TV news shortly after the storm struck showed whole neighborhoods flattened, cars and trucks smashed and flipped upside down, trees uprooted and fires burning amid piles of debris.
One local hospital, St John’s -Regional Medical Center, was hit hard by the twister, and several patients were hurt as the tornado ripped through the building, 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.”