Tornado kills at least 89, leaves ‘total devastation’ in Missouri town
A powerful tornado slammed into Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, killing at least 89 people as it ripped the top off a hospital, sheared parts of the roof off a high school and turned homes and major retail stores into heaps of rubble.
City Manager Mark Rohr announced the death toll before dawn Monday outside the wreckage of the hospital, confirming the fears that officials had expressed earlier. The twister cut a nearly six-mile path through the middle of the southwestern Missouri town of 50,000 on a day that a series of turbulent storms swept through the Midwest.
“It’s total devastation,” Gov. Jay Nixon said Sunday as he dispatched the National Guard and emergency rescue teams in a race to find survivors.
“We are responding aggressively, quickly. We want to make sure as the night goes on that we’re saving lives between now and dawn,” the governor told CNN. “There are a number of injuries. It’s going to be a long night and a difficult recovery.”
President Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was responding. “We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time,” he said.
Phone service in and out of the city was largely cut off.
Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. John Hotz said the state had dispatched 50 state troopers and a mobile communications unit in an attempt to learn the extent of the damage and injuries. Another 19 officers would be en route in the morning, he said.
“It’s a serious situation, but I can’t give you an assessment of the damage or the injuries until we get reports,” he said. “Certainly, we are doing everything we can to get help to the folks in the affected areas as soon as possible.”
Hotz said there were reports of “a number” of tornados across Missouri.
In Minneapolis, a tornado tore through the northern end of the city Sunday afternoon, killing one person and injuring at least 30 others. The same turbulent weather spawned a tornado in Reading, Kan., Saturday night that killed one person and destroyed about 20 homes as parts of the town were pelted with hail the size of golf balls.
Violent thunderstorms, including lightning, hail and powerful winds, were threats throughout the evening Sunday across at least six Midwestern states as a cold front moved in to confront a moisture-rich, low-level air mass, the National Weather Service warned.
The tornado that struck Joplin at 5:45 p.m. threatened to rival the devastating twisters that plowed through the South on April 27, leaving more than 330 people dead, including 45 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Joplin residents said the twister slammed through a town already keeping a close eye on the boiling, dark clouds blustering overhead, blowing over 18-wheel tractor-trailers on Interstate 44 and ripping directly into St. John’s Regional Medical Center, blasting medical debris for miles.
“It sounds like they got a direct hit,” said Laurie Duff, spokeswoman for a hospital in Springfield, Mo., where patients from Joplin were being evacuated. “The second hospital in town also sustained some damage.”
Triage centers and shelters were set up around Joplin. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, nurses and other emergency workers from area hospitals were treating critically injured patients.
The storm spread debris about 60 miles away, with medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items landing in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
“It looks like a war zone,” said Donald Davis, a chemotherapy nurse who was dining 35 miles away in Kansas when the tornado struck in Joplin, where he has lived much of his life. He said he contended with closed roads and downed power lines for nearly two hours to return home, where he found a scene of devastation in the center of the city.
It looked as if the tornado had traveled directly down 20th Street, Joplin’s main east-west thoroughfare, and at least 13 blocks to the east, he said in a telephone interview.
“Just up and down 20th Street, it’s just building after building. Houses destroyed. One of our largest grocery stores, destroyed. And there’s a big apartment complex right next to it, probably had 150 apartments in it, it’s flattened. Several churches gone. And big, nice homes — all just gone,” he said.
Davis said the roof appeared to have collapsed at Joplin High School, and a large real estate office across the street was leveled. But his own home, in the southeast part of town, was untouched except for some downed tree limbs, though like much of the city, it’s without electricity.
Jeff Lehr, a reporter for the Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to get 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 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.”
In the moments between the first and second tornado sirens that sounded the warning in Joplin on Sunday evening, Sara Ferguson knelt in prayer inside a church classroom.
The congregation of Citywide Christian Fellowship Church had been in the middle of services when a few people who’d been keeping watch on the darkening skies outside came back to say it was time to seek safety.
“There was a bit of hail and it was raining terrible,” said Ferguson, 50, who was reached by phone. “We’re up on a hill and the men who stayed at the door watched the tornado pass by a few blocks from us.”
Once it was over, she and her husband made their way to their home, passing a scene of unfathomable destruction. A trip that typically takes 10 minutes took an hour and a half.
“I cried the whole way,” she said.
They dodged downed power lines. They passed St. John’s Regional Medical Center, where it “looked like a bomb had gone off.”
A residential area of town she estimated to be about 10 blocks in size “looked like it was just gone.”
“Cars were crumpled up like tin cans,” she said, “businesses were leveled, one of the Wal-Marts is gone, a Lowe’s is damaged, and there are still people trapped inside.
“We’ve had tornadoes, but this is one of the worst ever here,” she said. “The swath that cut through town was huge.”
Her mind was occupied the whole time with worries for her two sons, her brother and countless friends she has made in her three decades living in Joplin.
“We were trying to reach our kids,” she said, describing heart-wrenching minutes of wait. One son’s apartment was gone, but he was found safe at work. Another son weathered the storm with his wife and child at their home, which was damaged.
Ferguson’s brother, whose home is near her son’s devastated apartment, had not yet been heard from. A nephew whose house she knows is gone is also missing.
“It’s going to be a long night, " she said.
Ferguson said she had watched reports of the devastating tornadoes in the South and had cried and prayed for those victims. Now, she said, she is praying for those much closer to home.
“I love Joplin. It’s a great place to live,” she said. “But when these tornadoes come through it can be very scary.”
Times staff writers Megan Garvey in Los Angeles and Kim Murphy in Seattle contributed to this report.