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Tue May 24, 2011
Around the Nation

House-To-House Search For Joplin Tornado Survivors

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 11:33 am

Rescue crews were using dogs to search foot by foot through the wreckage of Joplin, Mo., hoping to find people who might have survived the deadliest tornado in decades. Meanwhile, authorities said violent thunderstorms killed four people in Oklahoma and two in Kansas.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told NPR that the searches were being conducted "house by house, car by car, block by block" after Sunday's twister cut a swath of destruction through the town of 50,000 at the edge of the Ozark Mountains.

"We're still in that early stage where you're just convinced in your gut that there are live people under piles of rubble that you've got to go find," Nixon said. "Instead of counting body bags, if we can get to saving people, that's still our goal."

A half-mile wide tornado that touched down west of Oklahoma City stayed on the ground for at least an hour Tuesday. TV station KFOR followed the violent storm with a live webcast. At least four people were killed and three children were critically injured, authorities said.

In Kansas, police said two people died when high winds threw a tree into their van around 6 p.m. near the small town of St. John, about 100 miles west of Wichita.

Crews in Joplin took advantage of a break in bad weather to conduct more thorough searches for survivors. Rain, hail and strong winds had hampered efforts overnight, and the operation was briefly suspended after two police officers were struck by lightning.

Officials said Tuesday nine people were recovered from debris.

Federal officials estimate about 8,000 structures were damaged. Fire Chief Mitch Randles said searchers were looking through every damaged structure for possible survivors.

"We are getting sporadic reports of cries for help from rubble piles. Most of those are turning out to be false," he said at a news conference Tuesday morning. Randles declined to speculate about the number of missing.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Tuesday that the toll had risen to at least 122, officially making it the deadliest single U.S. twister in nearly six decades.

'My Mom Lost Everything'

Officials were concerned about the effect that rain and cool temperatures could have on anyone still trapped in rubble. A whipping wind, perhaps strong enough to finish off homes left barely standing by the tornado, made things more dangerous for searchers and potential survivors.

Many of those spared in Joplin were still taking stock of the utter destruction.

"My mom lost everything," a muddy and confused Shannon Johnson told NPR as she sifted through the rubble of a house. "She doesn't have any clothes. We're trying to get some clothes so my mom can change."

Johnson said her grandmother died in the house and that her aunt is one of more than 1,100 people who were injured and getting treatment.

Scores of people were trying to salvage what they could from destroyed homes as rain and hail added to the misery in Joplin.

Willa Humphrey said she survived by hiding inside her house even though it was flattened by the twister.

"The ceilings are about to fall in ... because of the rain," she said. "If it would quit raining we'd maybe have a little more time, but we've to get everything out as fast as we can."

Volunteers

Volunteers are streaming into Joplin to help with the slow and tedious recovery efforts.

Larry Johnson came to help his children dig out. "Pictures do not do this justice. It's gut wrenching," he said in tears. "But my kids made it."

Johnson said there's much work to be done. "Need a lot of people to help to help get all these people cleaned up cause it's going to be a long time before they all get to move back in," he said.

Johnson is part of an army of volunteers who have come to Joplin in the past few days. On Tuesday morning, the city's main roads were jammed with heavy equipment and people who came to help.

The victims' needs are wide ranging.

Paul Northcut, a police chaplain, traveled four hours from Russellville, Ark., to help Tim Sumners, who normally serves as a police chaplain in Joplin.

"I'm just so grateful," Sumner said.

Sumners says this is one of the few times when his personal needs outweigh his ability to minister. Northcut says at times of crisis people of faith are often needed the most.

"I'm just here to pass out water and food and prayers," he said. "Try to encourage folks and let 'em know that God's here in spite of the crisis."

Thousands Of People Still Without Power

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told NBC on Tuesday that President Obama has declared Joplin a disaster area, a move that opens up federal funds.

Obama, currently on a tour of Europe, was expected to visit Missouri on Sunday to assess the damage.

"I know that a lot of people are wondering how they'll get through the coming days or months or even years," he said in England on Tuesday. "But I want everybody in Joplin, everybody in Missouri, everybody in Minnesota, and across the Midwest to know that we're here for you."

The National Weather Service on Tuesday revised the strength of the twister up from an EF4 to EF5, the highest rating, with winds greater than 200 mph.

The twister was one of dozens reported across seven Midwestern states over the weekend. One person was killed in Minneapolis and another in Kansas, but Missouri took the hardest hits. It also marked the second major tornado disaster in less than a month. In April, a pack of twisters roared across six Southern states, killing more than 300 people, two-thirds of them in Alabama.

Missy Shelton of member station KSMU said 13,500 people were without power in Joplin.

"They are trying very hard to keep traffic out of the affected neighborhoods. One officer told me that there has been some concern about looting," she said.

Officials later confirmed that there had been some isolated incidents of looting but said they had "been taken care of."

Nixon has ordered about 140 Missouri National Guard troops to help local authorities.

"As soon as we heard the news of the tornadoes, the Missouri National Guard began mobilization activities," Army Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner said in a statement. "Your Missouri National Guard is bringing experienced citizen-soldiers and leaders to provide the best support we have to our neighbors in Joplin."

'The Home Depot Is Just Gone'

The tornado slammed into St. John's Regional Medical Center. The shell of the facility stands ravaged, with windows blown out. Six people died inside and more than 180 patients were transferred to the other hospital in Joplin, as well as to facilities in nearby towns.

On the other side of town, where a strip of big box stores and chain restaurants once stood, huge front loaders were starting to stack debris. Buildings for miles around were in splinters, and cars were bashed into twisted heaps of metal.

"The Home Depot is just gone. ... Pizza Hut, big apartment buildings," all gone, said Joplin resident Donny Gerry.

Randles, the fire chief, told The Associated Press that hundreds of businesses were leveled by the tornado as well as possibly thousands of homes.

Once the center of a thriving mining industry, Joplin flourished though World War II because of its rich lead and zinc mines. It also gained fame as a stop along Route 66, the storied highway stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., before freeways diminished the city's importance.

The community, named for the founder of the area's first Methodist congregation, is now a transportation crossroads and manufacturing hub. It's also the hometown of poet Langston Hughes and Gunsmoke actor Dennis Weaver.

City Manager Mark Rohr said Joplin "will recover and come back stronger than we are today."

Frank Morris of member station KCUR, Missy Shelton of member station KSMU and NPR's Sonari Glinton reported from Joplin, Mo., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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