Reporter Describes Tornado Devastation In Missouri

Originally published on May 23, 2011 3:00 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Former Mayor Gary Shaw described a stunning scene.

GARY SHAW: It just looks like a war zone, pickups stacked on top of one another. The trees and everything that is uprooted, it just stripped the bark off of them. I mean, they're like somebody's taken a knife and cut all the bark off them. We've lost tons and tons of homes and there are people out trying to uncover the dead right now.

MONTAGNE: Earlier we spoke with Melodee Colbert-Kean, a city council member in Joplin. She described the destruction at Joplin's St. John's Hospital.

MELODEE COLBERT: Every window in that building is now broken. Cars are tumbled all over the parking lot. I do know that the people in there had probably about precious few minutes to get out into the parking lot to get people in the safety corridor of the hospital.

MONTAGNE: Joining us for more is Missy Shelton. She's a reporter with public radio station KSMU and she is in Joplin. Good morning.

MISSY SHELTON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So what is the weather like right now?

SHELTON: There's thunder overhead. There's lightening. It's not a safe time at all to be out trying to gather things and even do search and rescue efforts.

MONTAGNE: Well, we've just heard a couple of vivid descriptions. What have you been seeing this morning?

SHELTON: It's all accurate - it's just hard to put into words. You have entire - just looking out over the horizon, when you stand at different parts of this neighborhood, and you just see piles of debris all the way out as far as the eye can see. And it's hard to even make out, was this a home, was it an apartment building, was it a church? It's just that far gone in some cases. You know, talking to residents, they're having trouble finding their way around, even those who have lived here for most of their lives.

MONTAGNE: What do you know at this point in time about the losses? So far 89 confirmed dead this morning, but what do you know about what the tally is?

SHELTON: So I think that the full story has not yet been told, unfortunately, and people are still trying to find those they can't contact or haven't heard from since the tornado hit.

MONTAGNE: What is the mood then generally of residents in the town? They must be shocked, horrified, many things we can imagine. But what have people been telling you?

SHELTON: They are shocked. They - even people who have lived in this area - I just - their whole lives. I just talked to a first responder who came over to help from Kansas. And you know, this is part of Tornado Alley. He came from an area that sees a lot of tornadoes, and he was even saying he's never seen anything like this. So this is quite out of the ordinary. It's not the level of impact that we're used to seeing around here when tornadoes do come through this area. It's the fact that it hit such a populated area. A lot of times we have significant storms in rural areas, but for it to plow through such a heavily populated part of the city is just totally devastating to this community.

MONTAGNE: Well, when we talked a little bit earlier, Missy, you said that people were walking around when the sun first came up, stunned, speechless.

SHELTON: That's exactly right. And you know, they - some of them had garbage bags full of clothes and other personal belongings. They were just trying to salvage what they could. And now that the rain is falling and falling quite hard, I'm afraid that most people are not able to continue even that little bit of effort to save what they can because it's just not feasible with all this rain. So it's a really difficult situation for the residents here.

MONTAGNE: Missy, thanks very much.

SHELTON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with Missy Shelton in Joplin, Missouri. She's a reporter with our member station in Springfield, KSMU. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.