JOPLIN, Mo. – A massive tornado that blasted a four-mile path across southwestern Missouri slammed into this city with cataclysmic force, ripping into a hospital, upending cars and leaving only a forest of splintered tree trunks behind where entire neighborhoods once stood.
An unknown number were killed in Joplin on Sunday night, and officials struggling to communicate without power and cell phone service were leery of putting a hard figure on a death toll they feared would rise after daybreak.
Asked about a report that 24 people had died, city spokeswoman Lynn Onstot said grimly that officials were "afraid it may be more. ... Our fear is that's a low number." The Missouri National Guard planned to search for the injured throughout the night.
"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 same storm system that produced the Joplin tornado spawned twisters along a broad swath of the Midwest, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. At least one person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri appeared to be the worst of the day, eerily reminiscent the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
Onstot said the twister — believed to be between one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide — was on the ground for nearly four miles. It 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 in this city of about 50,000 people some 160 miles south of Kansas City.
Among the worst hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center, which appeared to suffer a direct hit from a tornado. The staff had just a few moments' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the multistory building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.
In the parking lot, a helicopter lay crushed on its side, its rotors torn apart and windows smashed. Nearby, a pile of cars lay crumpled into a single mass of twisted metal. Matt Sheffer dodged downed power lines, trees and closed streets to make it to his dental office across from the hospital.
"My office is totally gone. Probably for two to three blocks, it's just leveled," he said. "The building that my office was in was not flimsy. It was 30 years old and two layers of brick. It was very sturdy and well built."
St. John's patients were evacuated to other hospitals in the region, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the medical center's sister hospital in Springfield. She had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike.
Details about fatalities and injuries were difficult to obtain even for emergency management officials, because the tornado knocked out power, landline phones and some cellphone towers, said Greg Hickman, assistant emergency management director in Newton County.
Triage centers and shelters were setup around the city. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, nurses and other emergency workers were treating critically injured patients.
Debris was carried up to 60 miles away, with medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items falling to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.
Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations. Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, and President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with state and local agencies.
Jeff Lehr, a reporter for the Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to make his way 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 walking around the streets outside trying to check on neighbors, but in many cases there were no homes to check. Amid the chaos, rescue workers and residents alike walked dazed through the wreckage.
"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."
Some people turned to social networking sites to get word out that loved ones were missing or homes destroyed, or that they and their families were OK.
In Minneapolis, city spokeswoman Sara Dietrich said the death was confirmed by the Hennepin County medical examiner. She had no other immediate details. Only two of the 29 people injured there were hurt critically.
Though the damage covered several blocks in Minneapolis, it appeared few houses were totally demolished. Much of the damage was to roofs, front porches that had been sheared away, or smaller items such as fences and basketball goals.
In Wisconsin, the mayor of La Crosse declared a state of emergency Sunday after a powerful storm tore roofs from homes and littered streets and lawns with downed trees and debris.
Additional storms were predicted across the southern Plains through Thursday morning.
An advisory from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said warm weather Monday could fuel instability in advance of another weather system. A few tornadoes, some strong, could occur — starting in Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the afternoon and in North Texas in the late afternoon.
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