Powerful twister plows through Joplin, Missouri (Reuters)
KANSAS CITY (Reuters) – A powerful tornado plowed through the southwestern Missouri town of Joplin on Sunday, flattening many homes, badly damaging a hospital and causing an unknown number of casualties, according to authorities and video footage of the storm’s aftermath.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon confirmed on CNN that an as-yet unknown number of people had perished in the twister, saying, “We don’t have any numbers, but we have had confirmation that there have been deaths.”
The Springfield, Missouri, “News-Leader” said Ryan Nicholls of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management had confirmed 24 fatalities in the wake of the Joplin tornado, but he could not be reached for comment on that report.
Nixon also declared a state of emergency and announced that he was ordering Missouri National Guard troops be deployed to help state troopers and other agencies respond to storms that he said “have caused extensive damage across Missouri.”
State Highway Patrol dispatcher Charles Bradley said the precise extent of the damage was not immediately known but it appeared the devastation could rival the destruction left by a deadly twister that hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last month.
“It’s kind of like Tuscaloosa again,” he said. More than 30 people perished in that storm.
Kathy Dennis, an American Red Cross official speaking from Joplin, a city of about 50,000 residents roughly 160 miles south of Kansas City, told CNN: “I would say about 75 percent of this town is virtually gone.”
Live video carried on the Weather Channel showed extensive areas where whole neighborhoods had been leveled.
Local TV news footage from the scene showed obliterated home sites, cars and trucks smashed and flipped upside down and fires burning amid piles of debris.
Joplin resident Denise Bayless, 57, told Reuters by telephone that many buildings on Main Street were leveled and the town’s only high school was burning.
She and her husband were at church when their adult son called to say the tornado was hitting his house, and the couple got in their car to drive to his aid.
“We just had to weave in and out of debris. Power lines were down everywhere, and you could smell gas. It was scary,” she said.
After stopping to assist a woman they heard screaming, trapped inside her home, Bayless said she ran five blocks to her son’s house, where she found every home on the street — some 20 dwellings including his — were demolished.
“I just lost all my bearings. There was nothing that looked familiar,” said Bayless, whose son was uninjured.
Beth Peacock, manager of a community concert center in town, Memorial Hall, said several hundred people had converged on the facility seeking shelter and medical treatment after the storm struck.
One local hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, was hit hard by the twister, and several patients were hurt as the tornado ripped through the building, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for a sister facility in Springfield, Missouri, about an hour away.
“It is extensive damage,” Scott said. “The roof is gone. A lot of the windows are blown out. We are evacuating the entire building.
“We don’t have a firm number on how many (victims) are coming our way,” Scott added. “We know there will be some trauma patients.”
Steve Runnels, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Springfield, Missouri, near Joplin, said indications were that the tornado was very powerful.
“We have reports of significant structural damage to strong buildings,” Runnels said. “Automobiles have been flipped, bark was stripped off trees.”
Danny Gordon, an emergency services dispatcher in neighboring Newton County, said damage seemed to be heaviest on the south end of Joplin and that a triage center was being set up on the scene.
“We have asked all available law enforcement from adjoining counties for assistance,” he said.
A tornado warning continued for parts of southwest Missouri for twisters that may be part of the same storm system, Runnels told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam, David Bailey and Chris Michaud; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan)