Ripping into a hospital and leaving a forest of splintered tree trunks behind where entire neighborhoods once stood, a massive tornado that tore a 6-mile path across southwestern Missouri killed at least 89 people as it slammed into the city of Joplin.
Authorities warned that the death toll could climb Monday as search and rescuers continued their work at sunrise.
City manager Mark Rohr announced the number of known dead at a pre-dawn news conference outside the wreckage of a hospital that took a direct hit from Sunday’s storm. Rohr said the twister cut a path nearly 6 miles long and more than a half-mile wide through the center of town, adding that tornado sirens gave residents about a 20-minute warning before the tornado touched down on the city’s west side.
Much of the city’s south side was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.
Fire chief Mitch Randles estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the city was damaged, and said his own home was among the buildings destroyed as the twister swept through this city of about 50,000 people some 160 miles south of Kansas City.
“It cut the city in half,” Randles said.
An unknown number of people were injured in the storm, and officials said patients were scattered to any nearby hospitals that could take them.
Authorities planned to conduct a door-to-door search of the damaged area Monday morning, but were expected to move gingerly around downed power lines, jagged debris and a series of gas leaks that caused fires around the city overnight.
“We will recover and come back stronger than we are today,” Rohr said defiantly of his city’s future.
Early Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon said fires from gas leaks still burned across the city.
“It’s a very, very precarious situation,” Nixon told CNN. “It’s going to be a stark view as people see dawn rise in Joplin, Missouri.” Residents said the damage was breathtaking in scope.
“You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That’s really what it looked like,” said Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School. “I couldn’t even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn’t believe what I saw.”
The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, according to the
National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. At least one person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst of the day, eerily reminiscent the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
Sunday’s storm in Joplin hit a hospital packed with patients and a commercial area including a Home Depot construction store, numerous smaller businesses and restaurants and a grocery store. Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said an estimated 2,000 buildings were damaged.
Among the worst-hit locations in Joplin was St. John’s Regional Medical Center. The staff had just a few moments’ notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.