Tornado Destroys Wide Swath Of Joplin, Mo.

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A massive tornado smashed into the city of Joplin, Mo., Sunday evening. It was by far the worst in a series of storms that swept the Midwest. City Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean talks to Renee Montagne about the damage and relief efforts.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A massive tornado smashed into the city of Joplin, Missouri last evening - by far the worst in a series of storms that swept the Midwest. The tornado ripped off the top of a main hospital, flung big rigs to the side of the road, blew down churches and fire stations.

Former Mayor Gary Shaw described a stunning scene.

GARY SHAW: It just looks like a war zone, pickups stacked on top of one another. The trees and everything that is uprooted, it just stripped the bark off of them. I mean, they're like somebody's taken a knife and cut all the bark off them. We've lost tons and tons of homes and there are people out trying to uncover the dead right now.

MONTAGNE: At least two dozen people are dead and rescue teams are racing to find survivors.

Joining us is Melodee Colbert-Kean. She's a city council member and mayor pro tem of Joplin.

Thank you very much.

MELODEE COLBERT: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: I understand you were not in the area where the storm caused the most damage, but you were able to go out and look around. What have you seen?

COLBERT: The damage is devastating. I would say, probably 70 percent of Joplin has been affected by this tornado. The swath of path that it hit was just so wide and the damage was so severe that it's going to take a while for Joplin to recover from this.

MONTAGNE: What kind of warning did the town have? I mean was there a sense of something like this actually coming at you?

COLBERT: Yes. I do have to give credit to the Springfield National Weather Service, because they had been alerting us to the impending storms coming. And, of course, the sirens went off. I believe it was probably a five, maybe seven minute chance for people to get out of their houses and to get into shelter before the storm hit.

MONTAGNE: Although, of a lot of people weren't in really good position to do that - people on the road and whatnot. I mean the hospital in particular suffered some of the worst damage, St. John's Hospital. What do you know about that?

COLBERT: St. John's did sustain heavy damage. Every window in that building is now broken. Cars are tumbled all over the parking lot. I do know that the people in there had probably about precious few minutes to get out into the parking lot to get people in the safety quarter of the hospital.

MONTAGNE: So what has that meant, though, that there isn't an obvious place to take people who were injured? They have to go to outlying hospitals?

COLBERT: Yes. We do have one other hospital here in Joplin and they were able to take some of the injured people, and some were transported to Springfield, which is about an hour away.

MONTAGNE: And what is being done in terms of trying to find, well, those who are alive? And also, I gather there's concern that there may be more dead than the number, so far, this morning.

COLBERT: Right. Correct. And that's the thing that we fear is that there will be as daybreak comes more discovered. We have emergency personnel as far as the city and local and areas surrounding cities helping to search for any that may be missing still. Our governor has declared a state of emergency and the National Guard has been dispatched down here. So it's an ongoing effort to recover anybody that hasn't been accounted for and to help those that are still unaccounted for also.

MONTAGNE: Do they have any sense of how many people are still unaccounted for?

COLBERT: Right now it is way too soon to tell, and the fear is that that's just going to go up as we're able to locate more people.

MONTAGNE: I gather you can't - there's no cell phone coverage, there's, it's hard to walk from one street to the next.

COLBERT: Correct. The cell phone coverage has been intermittent. It's very very hit and miss. There's a lot of people who still just are not able to make contact. There have been social media sites set up to where people are alerting others to say hey, your loved one has been found or posting that someone has been missing. So everybody's just trying to pitch in and help anyway they can as far as communication, as far as needing a ride, just anything and anywhere they can help.

MONTAGNE: What do you expect to be doing yourself in the days ahead?

COLBERT: I will be, myself, going down to our shelter facilities and seeing what I can do to help out there. My husband has been driving around with the pickup and transporting people where they need to go. He has a chainsaw - cutting trees out of the street and out of people's way so emergency crews can get through. Anything that can be done is needed: water, food, shelter, a hug, a prayer, anything that can be done is needed, right now, and appreciated.

MONTAGNE: City Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean of Joplin, Missouri, the site of last night's deadly tornado.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

COLBERT: Thank you.

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