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Joplin tornado deadliest in 60+ years

More than 1,150 people injured in storm that destroyed 30% of city

JOPLIN, MO (UPI) | May 25, 2011

Missouri authorities Tuesday raised the the Joplin tornado death toll to 117, making it the deadliest in 60 years, and put the number of missing at 1,500..More than 1,150 people were injured, officials said.

President Obama announced he had sent to two top federal officials to the stricken city.

About 30 percent of Joplin's buildings were destroyed by the Sunday evening twister, which cut a 3/4 mile swath and sported winds of 198 mph. It was unclear whether those missing managed to flee the area or whether they are trapped under the debris.

"We have suffered a devastating loss," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said in a Los Angeles Times report.

Obama, on a trip to London, said Administrator Craig Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Deputy Administrator Rich Sereno went to Joplin "to make sure our federal government is working hand in hand with state and local officials to give them the help they need."

Obama said he would travel to Joplin Sunday to view the damage from a tornado that ranks as the deadliest to hit Missouri in more than a century and the nation's worst in nearly 60 years.

Seventeen people had been found buried alive in the debris, including one person at a Home Depot where several bodies were recovered.

Authorities said two emergency workers were struck by lightning while trying to locate survivors.

Weather forecasters warned the area could still face some violent weather, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader reported.

"I do have a lot of concern for Tuesday and Wednesday," said forecaster John Kurtz of the National Weather Service.

Kurtz said a low-pressure system, now in the Rockies, would combine with other conditions later Tuesday in Oklahoma and Kansas to spawn more storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday the tornado was the deadliest single tornado in the United States since 1953.

Preliminary estimates indicate the tornado was rated as an EF-4, the second-highest classification, but it may eventually be rated EF-5, KSPR-TV said. An EF-4 tornado features winds of 166 mph to 200 mph.

Rescue efforts were complicated by storms battering the area Monday with hail and heavy downpours, Accuweather.com reported.

The Joplin tornado was one of 50 reported Sunday night in Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Another tornado outbreak was predicted for the South Tuesday, Accuweather.com said.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said the Sunday night tornado, described by one resident as "quite horrific," sliced through the center of the city.

The Joplin tornado struck the heart of the city "and it's very dense in terms of population," Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer told CNN. He said more than 40 rescue units from Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri were sent to help.

The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader said St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin took a direct hit. KSHB-TV, Kansas City, Mo., reported fires throughout the hospital.

Nearly 200 patients were evacuated. Many were taken to Freeman hospital in Joplin and others were flown to other St. John's hospitals in Springfield and northwest Arkansas, KSPR-TV reported.

X-rays from St. John's were found in driveways 70 miles away, said Ray Foreman, a meteorologist with KODE-TV, Joplin.

Joplin High School, a Home Depot, a Walmart, a church, apartments and gas stations were among buildings heavily damaged or destroyed. Schools were closed Monday.

Jerry Williams, assistant vice president at Missouri Southern State University, told the News-Leader he heard the tornado coming.

"I took my wife into a closet under the stairs," he said. "It sounded like a huge wind.

"It's been quite horrific. There are just areas that are flattened. Places are gone."

Jeff Law, 23, rode out the tornado in a friend's storm cellar. When he came out afterward, he said he didn't recognize his town.

"I didn't know where I was," Law said. "Everything was unrecognizable. It's like Armageddon."

Missouri officials said they were waiving fees and expediting highway permits to make it easier for trucks to haul relief supplies into tornado-stricken Joplin.

The Missouri Department of Transportation said permits were required for out-of-state trucks and vehicles hauling wide loads; however, the permits would be issued without charge and would be given high priority for approval.

The agency said in a written statement staff members would be on duty around the clock to handle the permit requests through May 30. The department may be reached at 800-877-8499 or 573-291-4853 after normal business hours.

A key trucking terminal in Joplin was one of the many buildings damaged by Sunday's massive twister. Conway Trucking said Monday its facility barely avoided a direct hit, but suffered numerous broken windows and had about 30 empty truck trailers damaged.

The company said in a written statement its operations office was running on an emergency generator and was in communication with its drivers and customers.

In Minneapolis, police declared an exclusion zone Monday in part of the tornado-pummeled North Side, where only residents will be allowed in once the area is considered safe, the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis reported.

One person was killed and 29 hurt in at least three tornadoes that struck the Twin Cities Sunday. WCCO, Minneapolis, reported 30 homes were damaged.

Hundreds of people were forced to seek shelter from their damaged homes, schools were closed and about 10,000 customers were without power Monday.

Although rumors of looting proved largely unfounded, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed Sunday will continue for the next "couple of days," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

The National Weather Service said twisters were reported in Juneau, Taylor, La Crosse and Monroe counties in western Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The windstorms knocked down trees in Mather and flipped several cars, damaged billboards and broke windows in Sparta, the newspaper said. In La Crosse, a tornado blew roofs off buildings and caused serious damage to a Kmart store. Authorities were checking a report of people possibly trapped in an apartment building, the Journal Sentinel said.

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