Death Toll Rises to Nearly 100 From Missouri Tornado [Gallery]

A twister that touched down Sunday evening in Joplin, Mo., damaged as much as 30 percent of the city, including more than 2,000 buildings.

  • President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, during his visit to Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011. The President and Gov. Nixon discussed the deadly tornado that touched down in Joplin, Mo., Sunday night. Photo: Pete Souza/The Official White House PhotoPresident Barack Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, during his visit to Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011. The President and Gov. Nixon discussed the deadly tornado that touched down in Joplin, Mo., Sunday night. Photo: Pete Souza/The Official White House Photo
  • A man runs by destroyed vehicle in Joplin, Mo. after a tornado struck the city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. Photo: Aaron DuRall/FlickrA man runs by destroyed vehicle in Joplin, Mo. after a tornado struck the city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. Photo: Aaron DuRall/Flickr
  • Photo of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO. Photo: American Red Cross/FlickrPhoto of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO. Photo: American Red Cross/Flickr
  • Photo of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO.  Photo: Aaron DuRall/FlickrPhoto of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO. Photo: Aaron DuRall/Flickr
  • A large tornado moved through much of Joplin, Missouri, Sunday, May 22, 2011, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/FlickrA large tornado moved through much of Joplin, Missouri, Sunday, May 22, 2011, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/Flickr
  • Residents of Joplin, Mo, walk west on 26th Street near Maiden Lane after a tornado hit the southwest Missouri city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. The tornado tore a path a mile wide and four miles long destroying homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/FlickrResidents of Joplin, Mo, walk west on 26th Street near Maiden Lane after a tornado hit the southwest Missouri city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. The tornado tore a path a mile wide and four miles long destroying homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/Flickr
  • This aerial view shows tornado damage to residences in north Minneapolis, Sunday, May 22, 2011. At least one person died when the tornado barreled through the residential portion of Minneapolis on Sunday, damaging at least 100 homes, toppling hundreds of trees and injuring at least 29 people. Photo: Urban Christian News/FlickrThis aerial view shows tornado damage to residences in north Minneapolis, Sunday, May 22, 2011. At least one person died when the tornado barreled through the residential portion of Minneapolis on Sunday, damaging at least 100 homes, toppling hundreds of trees and injuring at least 29 people. Photo: Urban Christian News/Flickr
  • Photo of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO. Photo: American Red Cross/FlickrPhoto of the damage caused by a tornado in Joplin, MO. Photo: American Red Cross/Flickr
  • An emergency worker carries a girl to safety from the remains of Academy Sports in Joplin, Mo. after a tornado struck the city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. Photo: Urban Christian News/FlickrAn emergency worker carries a girl to safety from the remains of Academy Sports in Joplin, Mo. after a tornado struck the city on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. Photo: Urban Christian News/Flickr
  • Destroyed vehicles are piled on top of one another in the parking lot of the Joplin Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., Sunday, May 22, 2011. A large tornado moved through much of the city, damaging the hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/FlickrDestroyed vehicles are piled on top of one another in the parking lot of the Joplin Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., Sunday, May 22, 2011. A large tornado moved through much of the city, damaging the hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses. Photo: Urban Christian News/Flickr

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.

“This tornado basically started over Joplin and stayed there for a long time,” Mr. Nixon said during an interview as he drove to Joplin to oversee rescue efforts. “It is devastating but we are working hard to continue to find those that are still alive.” 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 — 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 hospital’s tornado plan — moving patients into hallways — 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 hospital’s windows. “It was mass chaos trying to get patients out,” said Sgt. Rodney Rodebush, 30, a National Guard soldier who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the parking lot, the hospital’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.

“It’s just overwhelming,” said Lois Richardson, 75, who moved to Joplin three years ago from California, where she survived several earthquakes. “I’ll take two earthquakes to one tornado any day,” she said. “There’s nothing that compares to a tornado.” 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 region’s main highway.

The White House on Monday said President Obama, who is on a state trip to Europe, had called Governor Nixon to “personally 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.”

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. 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.

Joplin’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]

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