Rescue Workers Converge On Joplin, Mo.

fromKCUR

In Joplin, Mo., thousands of emergency workers continue to pick through huge piles of rubble left after a massive tornado pummeled the town on Sunday. As the death toll mounted, it became the most deadly single tornado since 1953.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning in Joplin, Missouri, emergency workers continue to sift through the huge piles of rubble left after a massive tornado pummeled the town on Sunday. At least 116 people are dead and the bad weather has made the rescue and cleanup efforts even more difficult.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR has our report.

(Soundbite of rumbling)

FRANK MORRIS: Many folks in Joplin spent yesterday outside, in the rain, pawing through the shredded, sodden wreckage of their households, looking for little things.

Shannon Johnson stands muddy and dazed.

Ms. SHANNON JOHNSON: I just know my mom lost everything. She doesn't have any clothes. We're trying to get what we can so she at least can change.

MORRIS: Johnson's grandmother died when the tornado hit the house she's sifting through. Her aunt is one of more than 1,100 badly injured and getting treatment.

As the death toll mounted throughout the day, the Joplin tornado became the most deadly single tornado since 1953 and many here worried about missing loved ones.

Delta Elmore holds a few trinkets of her life.

Ms. DELTA ELMORE: Just anything. I mean, you know, people are the most important and I saved one of my animals my dog - and I think my husband's okay. But he has Alzheimer's and he was in Greenbriar and I haven't been able to find him yet. But you know, they say that they put him out to different nursing homes and I've called them all and everything, so I think that he's okay.

MORRIS: Greenbriar Health Center was hit. The patients evacuated to other facilities, but one of the hospitals here was utterly devastated. The battered shell of St. John's Regional Medical Center rises above of a field of debris. The windows are all blown out. It looks like it's been bombed. Six people died here and more than 180 patients were transferred to the other hospital in Joplin, and facilities in nearby towns. But this tornado was just getting started. It tore six miles across the south side of this town of 50,000 people, demolishing more than 2,000 homes and businesses.

(Soundbite of beeping)

MORRIS: On the other side of town, where a strip of big box stores and chain restaurants once stood, huge front loaders are starting to stack debris, buildings for miles around pummeled into a heaving piles of splinters, bashed cars and twisted metal.

Joplin resident Donny Gerry was one of the first on the scene.

Mr. DONNY GERRY: The whole Home Depot is gone. Pizza Hut is not there. Wendy's isn't there. You know, all the big buildings are gone.

MORRIS: And think about just how big a Home Depot is. The tornado ripped through about 5:30. The stores were full of customers. But the carnage in the apartment building behind them was devastating too. Bob Stokes helped with the rescue effort.

Mr. BOB STOKES: We started last night pulling people and kids out of apartment building behind Wal-Mart. The whole top floor was gone, on the second floor. I hauled a couple of dead bodies out of the place. It's really sad and a lot of devastation.

MORRIS: It was a monster twister, with winds approaching 200 miles an hour. It tossed cars parked in the Wal-Mart parking lot into dirty, crumpled, chard-looking heaps. Inside - if you can say that about a building with no roof, spotty walls and miles and miles of white cable hanging like silly string from twisted steel girders - toiletries sit straight and clean on some of the shelves.

Late yesterday evening the search for people continued in this surreal environment. Scott Chamblis, Deputy Chief of the Owasso, Oklahoma Police Department was here with a dog team.

Chief SCOTT CHAMBLIS (Oklahoma Police Department): You know, we're looking through the rubble for victims. There are there are dogs out here that are trying to not only locate live victims but also possible victims that are deceased.

MORRIS: Meanwhile, most of the homeowners affected here tried to salvage what they could. As rain and hail pelted her roofless house, Willa Humphrey moved out furniture.

Ms. WILLA HUMPHREY: The ceilings are getting ready to fall in. See?

MORRIS: Because of the rain?

Ms. HUMPHREY: Yeah. If it would quit raining we'd maybe have a little more time but we've to move everything out as fast as we can.

MORRIS: Humphrey says she did not panic while the storm was destroying her house. And amazingly, she's still optimistic.

Ms. HUMPHREY: We'll get there and you will too. Everything - tomorrow's going to be a better day. Yeah, hopefully.

MORRIS: Same basic weather pattern that created the horrible Joplin tornado is likely to stay active in the area today, possibly hampering rescue efforts.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Joplin, Missouri.

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