In a scene eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month, a massive tornado tore a 6-mile path across Missouri, killing at least 89 people and slamming into the city of Joplin.
Authorities warned that the death toll could climb as search and rescue workers continued their efforts. Their task was made more miserable as a new thunderstorm with strong winds, heavy rain pelted part of the city with quarter-sized hail.
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. Much of the city's south side was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.
Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said about 2,000 buildings were damaged, while Joplin fire chief Mitch Randles estimated the damage covered a quarter or more of the city of about 50,000 people some 160 miles south of Kansas City. He said his home was among those destroyed.
An unknown number of people were injured, and officials said patients were scattered to any nearby hospitals that could take them.
Officers from the city and neighboring towns and counties manned virtually every major intersection. Ambulances came and went, sirens blaring. Rescuers involved in a door-to-door search moved gingerly around downed power lines and jagged debris. A series of gas leaks caused fires around the city overnight, and Gov. Jay Nixon said some were still burning early Monday. Nixon said he feared the death toll would rise but also expected survivors to be found in the rubble.
"I don't think we're done counting," Nixon told The Associated Press, adding, "I still believe that because of the size of the debris and the number of people involved that there are lives to be saved."
Crews found bodies in vehicles the storm had flipped over, torn apart and left crushed like empty cans. Triage centers and temporary shelters quickly filled to capacity. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, emergency workers treated critically injured patients.
At another makeshift unit at a Lowe's home improvement store, wooden planks served as beds. Outside, ambulances and fire trucks waited for calls. In the early hours of the morning, emergency vehicles were scrambling nearly every two minutes.
After daybreak, survivors picked through the rubble of their homes, salvaging clothes, furniture, family photos and financial records, the air pungent with the smell of gas and smoking embers. Some neighborhoods were completely flattened and the leaves stripped from trees, giving the landscape an apocalyptic aura. In others where structures still stood, families found their belongings jumbled as if someone had picked up their homes and shaken them.
The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. One person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
Greg Carbin, a warning coordinator for the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said that although both storms had high death tolls, the situation in Joplin was different to that in Alabama last month.
"This was one tornado," he said. "There were other tornadoes that touched down yesterday, but nothing to the extent of a month ago. It's different. It was not the same type of large-scale outbreak."
He estimated that the tornado that hit Joplin had winds of 135 to 165 mph.
More severe storms are coming, Carbin said, with Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma expected see tornadoes Monday and Tuesday and the bad weather spreading to the East Coast by Friday.
In Minneapolis, where a tornado killed one person and injured 29 on Sunday, authorities imposed an overnight curfew in a 4-square-mile area, including some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, to prevent looting and keep streets clear for emergency crews. Mayor R.T. Rybak said one liquor store was looted right after the tornado hit late Sunday and a few burglaries took place overnight.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in Joplin; Heather Hollingsworth, Dana Fields, Chris Clark and Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo.; Todd Richmond in La Crosse, Wis.; Tara Bannow in Minneapolis; and Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City, contributed to this report.