Joplin tornado death toll jumps to 89

JOPLIN, Mo. — A massive tornado blasted its way across southwestern Missouri on Sunday, flattening several blocks of homes and businesses in Joplin and leaving residents frantically scrambling through the wreckage.

At least 89 have died in the massive tornado, authorities say.

City manager Mark Rohr announced the number at a pre-dawn news conference outside the wreckage of a hospital that took a direct hit from Sunday's storm.

Rohr said the twister cut a path nearly six miles long and more than a half-mile wide through the center of town.

Much of the city's south side was leveled, with businesses, homes and restaurants reduced to ruins.

Search and rescue efforts are the current priority, including bringing people trapped food and water. Plans to clear debris and clean up the city are also pending, but that is a couple of days away, officials said. Officials expect that people are still trapped in buildings.

Two fire stations in Joplin have been destroyed, and rescuers are trying to work through their own damage while helping others.

The same storm system spawned twisters along a broad swath from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. At least one person was killed in Minneapolis.

In Joplin, hundreds of windows were blown out St. John's Regional Medical Center, where a few moments' notice gave staff time to hustle patients into hallways before the tornado struck. All were quickly evacuated into the parking lot to be moved to other hospitals in the region.

The storm spread debris about 60 miles away, with medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items falling to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.

Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations. Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. Schools in the disaster zoned were flattened or severely damaged.

Phone communications in and out of the city of about 50,000 people were largely cut off. Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.

On social networking sites, people with ties to Joplin and even those without were calling for prayers for the city.

Some people were quick to post that they and their families are OK, or to get the word out that loved ones are missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines, but able to text and use social media.

Eyewitness accounts

Jeff Lehr, a reporter for the Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to make his way to a basement closet.

"There was a loud huffing noise, my windows started popping. I had to get downstairs, glass was flying. I opened a closet and pulled myself into it," he told The Associated Press. "Then you could hear everything go. It tore the roof off my house, everybody's house. I came outside and there was nothing left."

He said people were walking around the streets trying to check on neighbors, but in many cases there were no homes to check.

"There were people wandering the streets, all mud covered," he said. "I'm talking to them, asking if they knew where their family is. Some of them didn't know, and weren't sure where they were. All the street markers were gone."

Alan Schmidt was working at his driving range and miniature golf course when the tornado sirens began sounding shortly after 5:30 p.m.

By about 5:45 p.m., “It was as dark as if it was midnight,” Schmidt said. “I’ve never seen it get that dark during the day before.”

He rattled off a list of businesses that had been hit: the new Walgreens. The Home Depot. A sports center. Pizza Hut. Sonic. Wendy’s.

“It’s bad,” he said. “Really bad.”

Resident Tom Rogers walked around viewing the damage with his daughter.

"Our house is gone. It's just gone," Rogers said. "We heard the tornado sirens for the second time. All of a sudden, everything came crashing down on us. We pulled our heads up and there was nothing. It was gone."

Survivors reported more than 20 semi-trailer trucks overturned by the tornado. Television stations were knocked off the air and radio stations were asking for help from anyone who could lend a hand. Victims were trapped in the rubble of houses and in cars.

The roofs of two city fire stations collapsed.

Witnesses said the tornado appeared to have multiple vortices swirling within it as it moved through Joplin, according to weather service reports.

The thunderstorm that spawned the tornado developed in southeast Kansas, said Stephanie Dunten, a meteorologist with the Wichita branch of the weather service. Hail as large as softballs was reported in Labette County, she said, but no tornadoes were reported.

Damage elsewhere

In Minneapolis, city spokeswoman Sara Dietrich said one death was confirmed by the Hennepin County medical examiner. She had no other immediate details. Only two of the 29 people injured there were hurt critically.

Though the damage covered several blocks in Minneapolis, it appeared few houses were demolished. Much of the damage was to roofs, front porches that had been sheared away, or smaller items such as fences and basketball goals.

In Wisconsin, the mayor of La Crosse declared a state of emergency Sunday after a severe storm tore roofs from homes. No one was seriously injured.

Additional storms were predicted across the southern Plains through Thursday morning.

An advisory from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said warm weather today could fuel instability in advance of another weather system. A few tornadoes, some strong, could occur — starting in Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the afternoon and in North Texas in the late afternoon.

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