Joplin tornado: Death toll reaches 116

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Missouri National Guard soldiers with the 294th Engineer Company work search and rescue missions in Joplin, Mo., just hours after a deadly tornado passed through. Ann Keyes/Missouri National Guard.

Vernon County and Nevada residents and agencies are already working at a feverish pace to help the victims of the tornado that ripped through the middle of Joplin, Sunday, May 22.

The Springfield office of the National Weather Service is now calling the storm and EF4 tornado, with wind speed of 190-198 mph. The death toll reached 116 by Monday evening -- making it the deadliest tornado since June 8, 1953, when 116 people were killed by a twister that struck Flint, Mich.

City Manager J.D. Kehrman has been in touch with the Nevada Red Cross and Vernon County Ambulance District workers, who are on site in Joplin. (See related story, Page 1)

The Nevada Police Department dispatched two officers right after the storm hit and the Nevada Fire Department dispatched a back up pumper truck and a crew of three shortly after the impact. Staged in Carthage at first, they were dispatched to the Home Depot for search and rescue and by Monday had been assigned to residential area.

Nevada Field Operations Manager Roger Beach departed Monday morning with a crew of four and a dump truck, back hoe, skidsteer loader and crew truck to assist Joplin Public Works.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, during his visit to Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011. The President extended his condolences to all impacted by the deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., Sunday night. "The President has directed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to travel to Missouri to ensure the state has all the support it needs. In addition, in anticipation of requests for assistance, a FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team is en route to Joplin. This self-sustaining team will work with FEMA officials already in Missouri to coordinate with state and local officials to identify needs and any shortfalls impacting disaster response and recovery. The Federal government will continue to support our fellow Americans during this difficult time," said a statement from White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro. Pete Souza/White House Photographer.

The Nevada facility maintenance workers responded to Joplin with hand tools for search and rescue missions.

Nevada personnel have been instructed to check in upon arrival and provide their name and a list of available resources, to check out before leaving, and to coordinate efforts with local command; officials expect relieve support to be needed for "some time to come."

First hand accounts of the tornado differ widely, but most of them echo a statement by 44-year-old, life-long Joplin resident Travis Parks. "it's bad man--it's really bad." Parks wasn't actually in the impact zone, but his daughter's home and his best friend's house "are both gone, they're just gone," Parks said.

Parks raced toward his daughter's house behind the storm and said it was "like driving through where a giant bomb went off." He couldn't get close to her apartment at Sunset Ridge, so he abandoned his car and "ran for what seemed like five miles" only to find "more destruction." Parks located his daughter and his best friend safe and sound, but on Monday still had not found his grandmother who was a patient at St. John's.

On his way to the hospital Parks ended up at the Wal-Mart at 20th and Rangeline Road where he used to work. Gone!

"There's nothing there" he said. He expressed his hope that his grandmother had been moved safely to another hospital. His other family members were safe "they're all with me right now," he said.

Nevada residents Sherry Galster and May Hutchison were traveling on Interstate 44 when they saw the storm approaching. They pulled into a Flying J travel stop at 32nd Street and ran inside. Galster said that workers herded everyone into a small room -- about 100 people, she guessed. "Everybody was screaming and crying and one man, a black man, was kneeling and praying," she said.

Galster saw the "roof and ceiling lift off of the building and then water started leaking into the room." At 6:07 p.m. "the noise stopped," according to Galster, but the group stayed in the building until nearly 6:30. She never saw the black man again, but when they exited the building, a police officer told them all to get back inside, but a moment later he was screaming at all of them to get out because of the smell of natural gas. "I was afraid the place was going to blow up," she said.

Outside, the area was covered with debris. "The gas pumps were all knocked over" and the underside of her car was jammed full of debris. She said that her car was the only one she saw that didn't have all its windows broken out. Galster said they got into the car and ran right over the debris, "I didn't care, I just wanted to get out of there," she said. They drove as fast as they could to Carthage. "We were still shaking when we got to Carthage," Galster said, "It was the scariest thing I've ever been through in my life."

And it's no wonder. Candy Adams, Area D Coordinator for the State Emergency management Agency said she worked the Stockton tornado and the one that hit Pierce City, "Stockton was horrible, but this is so much worse--so much worse," she said. "There're several miles of total devastation," Adams said. "We're doing an initial damage assessment, just trying to figure out where to go from here. We'll get a much more detailed assessment in the next week."

Adams also said that a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that worked the Greensburg, Kan. tornado of 2007 told her that the devastation in Joplin was worse than the damage left by that EF-5 storm.

Agencies from Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma are working with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri National Guard and other volunteer agencies like Americorps, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross to bring some kind of order to the chaos that has covered the city of Joplin.

Locally, efforts are under way to collect money and goods for those affected by the storm. Peggy Tedlock of the Vernon County Chapter of the American Red Cross said that many generous individuals have brought in monetary donations and they have been fielding many, many calls about friends and relatives and from people interested in volunteering in the effort to help the residents of Joplin.

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