Much of this southwestern Missouri city lay in ruins on Monday morning after a massive tornado, the latest storm to ravage the Midwest and South this spring, tore through the area, killing at least 90 people. Officials say they expect the death toll to climb.
The twister, which touched down at about 6 p.m. Sunday in this city of 50,000 people, ripped apart buildings, started fires, uprooted trees and left cars in mangled stacks of metal. Gov. Jay Nixon said the enormous size of the storm and its slow, plodding pace were to blame for the destruction.
â€śThis tornado basically started over Joplin and stayed there for a long time,â€ť Mr. Nixon said during an interview as he drove to Joplin to oversee rescue efforts. â€śIt is devastating but we are working hard to continue to find those that are still alive.â€ť Mr. Nixon said five families had been found alive so far and pulled from rubble.
Residents received a 25-minute warning that a tornado was headed toward the city, giving many a few precious moments to gather children and run for safety. When the tornado struck, it cut a path of damage through Joplin that officials estimate was a mile wide and four miles long, with wind speeds reaching 166 miles per hour.
Authorities are estimating that 25 to 30 per cent of the city has been damaged, with 2,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, among them a major hospital, a nursing home and several schools, firehouses and large stores, including a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot.
The tornado was part of a weather system in which cold and warm fronts collided throughout the middle sections of the country, meteorologists said â€” an event apt to spawn supercell tornadoes along the storm front like the one that struck Joplin.
One of the worst-hit buildings in Joplin was St. John’s Regional Medical Centre. Staff had just moments to rush patients into hallways before the tornado struck the nine-story building, blowing out almost all of its windows.
“The hospital is out of commission… all but destroyed,” CNN reporter Jim Spellman told CBC News early Monday. He said the hospital’s parking lot looked like a junkyard with wrecked cars stacked on top of each other.
By Monday morning, the hospital, which is a major trauma care center in the area, had moved all its patients to other facilities, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the hospital. But it was uncertain how many of the 183 patients who were there when the tornado struck were killed.
Ms. Scott said the hospital had a few minutes of warning and were in the process of following the hospitalâ€™s tornado plan â€” moving patients into hallways â€” when the tornado struck.
Rescue workers said nearly every patient in the hospital had been cut by glass that had been blown out of the hospitalâ€™s windows. â€śIt was mass chaos trying to get patients out,â€ť said Sgt. Rodney Rodebush, 30, a National Guard soldier who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the parking lot, the hospitalâ€™s helicopter lay amid a heap of rubble wrapped up in a chain link fence along with two cars and a tree. Its rotor and blades were missing. The residential blocks around the hospital were a wasteland: houses that were leveled and trees that were snapped off and tossed about left behind a vivid green carpet of cleaved foliage.
The weather appeared to foretell more trouble. On Monday morning, there was lightning, thunder, hail and high winds – and the fear that another deadly storm might be imminent. The forecast Monday called for more thunderstorms, bringing as much as two inches of rain and 60 mile per hour winds.
â€śItâ€™s just overwhelming,â€ť said Lois Richardson, 75, who moved to Joplin three years ago from California, where she survived several earthquakes. â€śIâ€™ll take two earthquakes to one tornado any day,â€ť she said. â€śThereâ€™s nothing that compares to a tornado.â€ť Ms. Richardson, who was thrown against a wall in her house by the force of the twister, said she saw a tree fly horizontally past her window.
Downed cellphone towers, telephone lines and power poles were making communication difficult, and at least 20,000 people remained without power. Many of the roads in the area were closed by felled trees, including Interstate 44, the regionâ€™s main highway.
The White House on Monday said President Obama, who is on a state trip to Europe, had called Governor Nixon to â€śpersonally extend his condolences and to tell all of the families of Joplin affected by the severe tornadoes that they are in his thoughts and prayers.â€ť
President Obama released a statement on the emergency late Sunday night, saying, “Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives in the tornadoes and severe weather that struck Joplin, Missouri as well as communities across the Midwest today. We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time,” Obama said in the statement.
“At my direction, FEMA is working with the affected areas’ state and local officials to support response and recovery efforts, and the federal government stands ready to help our fellow Americans as needed,” he added.Â Mr. Obama has directed Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to travel to Missouri to oversee the federal response.
Tornadoes have killed hundreds of people in the last two months and caused millions of dollars in damage from Minnesota and Missouri to Oklahoma and North Carolina. Tuscaloosa, Ala., continues to recover from a massive twister that tore through the city in late April.
Joplinâ€™s was by far the worst damage on a day of brutal storms in the Midwest, including a tornado in Minneapolis that city officials said left one person dead and dozens injured in an area that covered several blocks. [via CBS (CA),CS Monitor and NY Times]