Tornado death toll expected to rise

JOPLIN, Mo.

When the tornado hit, Staci Perry, a scrub technician at St. John's Regional Medical Center, had just left the operating room to grab a piece of equipment for a surgery in progress. An urgent announcement came over the loudspeaker: "Execute condition gray." That was the hospital's code for an impending disaster, though in drills, the command was always preceded by "Prepare for condition gray."

There was no time to prepare. As she heard the glass walls crack, Perry, 33, dashed back to surgery. "The pressure in everyone's ears was just tremendous," she said. A physician's assistant threw himself against the door so it wouldn't blow in and destroy the operating room. The lights went out. The wind howled.

"Literally, the hospital imploded," said Dr. Jim Riscoe, an emergency room physician at the 230-bed facility. There is an emergency plan for disasters, he said, "but they don't anticipate the emergency being the hospital."

When it was over, just after 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a six-mile swath roughly a half mile wide had been gouged. At least 116 people died. At least six were hospital patients.

The apocalyptic after-images were depressingly familiar, reminiscent of those from the April tornadoes in the South: rubble as far as the eye could see, cars buried under pieces of houses, trees wrenched from the ground with their huge roots reaching toward the sky, columns of smoke rising from gas fires, emergency vehicles with lights flashing. And everywhere, people stunned by nature's violence mourned their losses, counted their blessings and told their harrowing stories.

In torrential rain, lightning, hail and heavy winds, rescuers went door-to-door on Monday, gingerly avoiding debris and downed power lines that ignited fires fueled by leaking gas. Severe thunderstorms continued late into the night.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said rescuers pulled at least 17 survivors from the rubble. Joplin officials said more than 2,000 structures were ripped apart and neighborhoods were obliterated .

"We still believe there are people to be saved in the rubble," said Nixon, who deployed about 140 National Guard troops to help with the rescues.

The National Weather Service said the Joplin tornado, with winds as high as 198 mph, was the deadliest single tornado since 1953, when 116 were killed in Flint, Mich. It was rated F-4 on the Fujita scale, one step below the strongest tornado. (Multiple tornadoes were responsible for about 340 deaths over four days in late April, mostly in Alabama.)

The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service. A tornado also touched down Sunday in North Minneapolis, Minn., killing one person.

• • •

Dr. Jason Persoff, 39, a Jacksonville internist and storm chaser, had been in southeast Kansas on Sunday with his storm-chasing partner, also a physician, when they realized they were seeing something huge. "This storm will do incredible things," Persoff remembered thinking.

But as they headed into Missouri, they heard on the radio that a "debris ball" had been spotted on radar — a mass of material torn from the ground, carried along by the turbulence. Persoff's excitement turned to terror. He pulled off the highway into Joplin and saw crumpled semitrailer trucks. He flagged down an emergency worker and got directions to the nearest functioning hospital, where he and his friend helped treat patients all night, amazed at the dedication of the hospital staff.

"They didn't know what happened to their families," Persoff said, "and yet they were focused 190 percent on keeping people alive."

• • •

A few blocks from St. John's Hospital, where a helicopter had been blown off the roof, Zach Simonds was cleaning floors at the Greenbrier Nursing Home when he heard "code red" on the intercom. About a dozen staffers tried to gather up the 85 patients into the central hall.

The tornado tore the roof off the nursing home. Simonds could see cars being tossed around overhead. "Everybody was praying, you could hear people praying, please God don't kill me," he said. Then, the glass-plated front of the building burst.

"It just sucked everybody out," said Simonds, who was able to duck into a closet-sized room with a few other people. When he left to find help, he had to pick his way past decapitated bodies. And there was no help to be found. All the buildings he passed were destroyed. "I didn't think anybody was alive."

• • •

All around Joplin, families reunited gratefully, still puzzling over their fates and those of others less fortunate.

Melissa Clark and Richard Slimp, both 26, took refuge with their four children and six neighbors in the basement of their white clapboard house. When the tornado passed, they emerged to find their house seemingly intact, except for the windows. But Monday afternoon, torrential rain poured through the roof. "Every one of our walls look like we mowed in here," said Clark, waving at the layers of mud and grass and debris caking the vertical surfaces.

Clark's stepfather, Dave Word, 57, was in his house three miles away when the sirens sounded. He dove onto his hallway floor as his roof was ripped away. Clad only in boxer shorts, he walked to Clark's home. A sympathetic passer-by gave him a coat. Monday he sat in his stepdaughter's living room amid a jumble of broken glass and debris. "I don't even know what I am going to do, I don't know where I am going to start," said Word, who had lost his wallet and credit cards.

• • •

Joplin's Walmart, on a slight incline overlooking the city's business district, was half-collapsed, with ceiling supports sticking out like an exposed ribcage. In the parking lot, dozens of destroyed cars were stacked in pyramids.

"I hope to God nobody was in these cars," said Cavin Cowan, 45. He pointed to a ravaged Buick. "Somebody was probably still in that one," he said. "The lights are on, the radio's still going."

• • •

Outside McAuley Catholic High School, which had been turned into an impromptu triage center, Carolene Coleman, 70, dropped her head. Her voice quavered. Her eyes pooled with tears as she sat scraped and bruised in a wheelchair, her ankle bandaged.

All they were doing, Coleman said, was stopping for a drink at the Elk's Lodge. Then the twister roared and ripped. There was no basement; nowhere was safe.

"The roof collapsed on everybody," she said. She was crushed. Her husband, Clyde, 74, lay on top of her, his body still, for nearly six hours. They were married for 54 years. Everyone was screaming, "Help! Help us!"

She knew the truth.

"He's dead," she said.

• • •

David Utter, 26, was driving with his wife, and two children when the tornado touched down. "The rain started going sideways, and it lifted us up and pushed us into the oncoming lane," Utter said. They were unharmed; their van was untouched. Monday, he was standing in front of a brick home, looking for the friend and the friend's 3-year-old son.

"I've lived here my whole life," he said, "and I no longer recognize where I am."

Information from the Kansas City Star was included in this report.

Joplin is where many go to work

Located in southwest Missouri in the "four states" region encompassing Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, Joplin is at the edge of the Ozark Mountain region in Jasper County.

. Population: 49,024. The daytime population swells to 270,000 while the population within a 40-mile radius of Joplin is 400,000, making it Missouri's fourth largest metropolitan area.

. Jobs and economy: Median income is $32,169. The average value of existing homes in the area is $72,540. New three-bedroom homes typically range from $70,000 to $105,000. The unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in March. Health care services and tourism-related businesses (accommodations, restaurants) are the top two employers in the area.

Sources: City of Joplin; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics;
Missouri Economic Research and Information Center

How to help the tornado victims

The American Red Cross has set up a website ( http://tiny.cc/buj5h) specifically to support disaster relief efforts in Missouri. Secure donations can be made on this site to help those affected by the floods and tornadoes throughout Missouri. Money raised from this site will help provide shelter, food, and other assistance to Missourians impacted by storms.

People can also make a $10 donation via their cell phone by texting the word "REDCROSS" to 90999. Contributions can be sent to the local American Red Cross chapter at: Greater Ozarks Chapter, American Red Cross, 1545 N West ByPass, Springfield, MO 65803

Donations can also be made with a credit card or check over the phone by calling (417) 832-9500.

To support the Salvation Army Disaster Relief Efforts, people can text the word "JOPLIN" to 80888 for an automatic $10 donation; by calling 1-800-Sal-Army (1-800-725-2769) or by going to www.salvationarmy.us.

Tornado death toll expected to rise 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 6:00am]

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