Search for tornado survivors a race against time

Mo. toll at 122; 7 die as storms hit elsewhere

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Associated Press / May 25, 2011

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JOPLIN, Mo. — Emergency crews drilled through concrete at a ruined Home Depot, making peepholes in the rubble in hopes of finding lost shoppers and employees. A dog clambered through the shattered remains of a house, sniffing for any sign of the woman and infant who lived there.

Across devastated Joplin, searchers moved from one enormous debris pile to another yesterday, racing to respond to any report of a possible survivor.

The human toll rose to at least 122 dead and 750 people hurt. But just nine had been pulled alive from the aftermath. Searchers fought the clock because anybody still alive after the deadliest single tornado in 60 years was losing precious strength two days after the disaster, and another round of storms was closing in.

For Milissa Burns, hope was fading that her 16-month-old grandson, whose parents were both hospitalized after Sunday’s tornado hit their home, would be found.

Burns showed up yesterday at a demolished dental office near the child’s home to watch a search team. At one point, a dog identified possible human remains, prompting eight searchers to dig frantically, but they came away with nothing. Burns was weary but composed.

“We’ve already checked out the morgue,’’ Burns said. “I’ve called 911 a million times. I’ve done everything I can do. He was so light and little. He could be anywhere.’’

The National Weather Service announced that the twister that crippled Joplin was an EF-5, the strongest rating assigned to tornadoes, with winds of more than 200 miles per hour. Scientists said it appeared to be a rare “multivortex’’ tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.

It was the deadliest single twister since the weather service began keeping official records in 1950 and the eighth-deadliest in US history.

A short time later, severe thunderstorms spawned a tornado that killed two people during the evening rush hour in suburban Oklahoma City.

Another top job was testing the city’s tornado sirens to make sure they were operable ahead of another round of potentially violent weather starting last night and expected to last into today in some places. Emergency officials warned jittery residents well in advance of the test.

David Imy, a meteorologist at the federal government’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said conditions were ripe for severe thunderstorms, including tornadoes, in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Several tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma and high winds pounded rural Kansas. Seven people were killed in the two states.

The high-powered storms 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 around 6 p.m. near the small town of St. John, about 100 miles west of Wichita. The highway was shut down because of storm damage.

The severe weather was moving east after nightfall, but none of the systems had the power of the daytime storms. Nevertheless, their path included Joplin.

Throughout the search efforts in Missouri yesterday, new reports emerged of clusters of victims: 11 people dead in a nursing home, three bodies found in an Elks Lodge.

Sunday’s tornado tossed three vehicles into the Greenbriar nursing home and left nothing more than a 10-foot section of an interior wall standing. On the night of the twister, the Joplin Elks lodge had been scheduled to host its weekly bingo game.

“If that had been two hours later, there could have been 40 or 50 people in there,’’ said Chris Moreno, a hospital lab technician coordinating an outdoor triage center.

Jasper County emergency director Keith Stammer said the scope of the destruction was making it difficult to account for people affected by the storm. He suggested that many survivors, with nowhere to go, left Joplin for Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, or other parts of Missouri.

“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of inability for folks to communicate,’’ he said.

Authorities also announced a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., with only residents and emergency workers allowed inside the disaster zone.

People in the Joplin area and beyond have turned to online social networks to find family members. Multiple Facebook pages created since the tornado are filled with requests for information about specific people who have not been heard from.

From the air, the difficulty of the search was apparent. The Home Depot was identifiable only by the prevalence of the store’s signature orange color metal that looked as if it had been melted.