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Joplin tornado survivors race to save possessions before new storms hit

Entire neighborhoods lie in rubble after the tornado cut a six-mile swath through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, killing at least 122.

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Entire neighborhoods lie in rubble after the tornado cut a six-mile swath through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, killing at least 122.

JOPLIN, Mo. — As the sky filled with dark clouds again, the pace picked up on Kentucky Avenue.

Tim Jasinski, a 44-year-old contractor, threw bundles of sheetrock into the back of his pickup, then added a bicycle belonging to one of his seven children. He cast a glance back at his house, a century-old bungalow he had been renovating before a tornado touched down Sunday.

"It's gone," he said Tuesday. "It's just a matter of how long before it topples. We're just salvaging what we can."

As the death toll from one of the nation's deadliest tornadoes rose to 122, with more than 750 injured, residents raced to salvage what they could before new storms struck. At spots throughout Joplin's six-mile-long swath of destruction, rescue teams probed and dug through splintered ruins in a desperate search for survivors.

Elsewhere, a line of violent thunderstorms roared across middle America on Tuesday, killing seven people in two states, with tornadoes in Oklahoma and high winds pounding rural Kansas.

Several tornadoes struck Oklahoma City and its suburbs during rush hour, killing at least five people and injuring at least 60 others, including three children who were in critical condition, authorities said.

In Kansas, police said two people died when high winds threw a tree into their van about 6 p.m. near the town of St. John, 100 miles west of Wichita. The highway was shut down because of storm damage. More severe weather was expected after nightfall as the storms continued east.

Among the sites of intense activity in Joplin were a Walmart, half of which had collapsed, a Home Depot and a large apartment complex, also in ruins. Rescuers, in some cases aided by dogs, searched for signs of life.

Two people were found alive in damaged buildings Tuesday, in addition to seven found the day before.

The tornado, which packed winds of more than 200 mph, was the eighth deadliest in U.S. history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials in Joplin said 8,000 structures had been damaged, many beyond repair. It was one of a series of devastating tornadoes that have struck the Midwest and South this spring, causing more than 490 deaths.

The scene Tuesday on Kentucky Avenue was typical of what was happening all along the path of destruction in this city of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri. Homeowners, joined by friends and family, gathered up personal items and frantically tried to shore up tottering houses as the sky turned from a welcome hazy blue to an ever-darker and more threatening gray.

Before Sunday, this was a pleasant, leafy block of early 20th century bungalows with converted attics. Many of those attics were lopped off by Sunday's storm. Oak trees that used to shade the sidewalk lay across lawns, roofs and living rooms, shorn of their bark and leaves. Yards were heaped with mounds of torn-out insulation, mud and battered belongings.

Across the street from Jacinski, John Mott stood on his debris-covered lawn, sipping a Coke and considering the state of his home.

"The inside is kindling," he said. "The south wall is separated from the foundation and I'm trying to prop it up so it can survive another night."

Mott was wistful, remembering how tight the street had been, how folks had looked out for one another. His eyes focused on a decapitated bungalow across the street where an elderly man used to live. The man died before the storm.

"He lived there since 1958, and I'm glad he didn't get to see what happened to his house," Mott said.

His attention returned to how he would survive the night ahead. "Pray," he said. "We don't have a lot of choice."

While some people insisted on staying in their battered houses, others had no choice but to seek shelter. At Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, 143 people took refuge at a shelter in a basketball arena; elsewhere, 34 people stayed in a church. Public health officials administered tetanus shots to survivors and about 190 National Guard troops helped search for survivors.

Police made several looting arrests, and the city instituted a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the damaged zone, Chief Lane Roberts said at a news conference.

Roughly 1,500 people were reported missing. However, City Manager Mark Rohn stressed: "That does not mean they are injured or deceased. It means loved ones are not aware of their whereabouts for many reasons." Many people were without working phones, and traveling even a short distance in the city was difficult.

In central Joplin, Shane Hunter and his squad of firefighters, both full-time and volunteer, stood wearily by a huge pile of wreckage. The dozens of hours they had spent painstakingly searching piles of debris were written on their faces.

"There's stuff laying on top of stuff laying on top of stuff," said Steve Slagle, a volunteer from Springfield, Mo.

When Hunter and the rest of his team, a mix of firefighters and volunteers with emergency response experience from as far as Nashville, first arrived late Sunday, they hoped they would be pulling living people from the rubble. But after checking a 4-mile area, they had found no one.

"I don't think there are any survivors," said Hunter, from nearby Diamond, Mo. "It becomes more of a search and recovery."

Just then his radio squawked. He put it to his ear. "They found four," he told his team. "They're taking them to B Company now."

At the news of four survivors, the exhausted, grimy faces allowed themselves the slightest grins. Hunter, laconically, said: "Cool." Then he told his team they had to move along.

The death toll from this year's tornadoes, now at more than 490, is the highest since 1953, when an outbreak of twisters across the Midwest and the Northeast claimed 519 lives. The high toll this year is all the more remarkable considering that early warning systems are in place throughout tornado country.

Many tornado experts believed that the advances in technology had greatly diminished the risk of mass tornado fatalities.

"We never thought there'd be another year of deaths like this, with all our warning systems," said Thomas P. Grazulis, a tornado historian.

Since 1875, there have been just 15 years with more than 360 tornado deaths, and none since 1975. The single deadliest tornado year in the United States was 1925, with 794 fatalities. This year now ranks eighth on the list of deadliest tornado years.

The tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, with its death toll now standing at 122, is the deadliest since the weather service began keeping official records in 1950 and the eighth-deadliest in U.S. history.

On March 18, 1925, the Great Tri-State Tornado tore across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. In its wake, 695 people were killed and another 2,000 were injured.

New York Times; National Weather Service

Joplin tornado survivors race to save possessions before new storms hit 05/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 12:51am]

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