Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon: Joplin Tornado Was 'Horrific'

Rescue workers in Joplin, Mo., are working through rainy weather to find survivors of Sunday's deadly tornado. Gov. Jay Nixon tells Mary Louise Kelly that two police officers were struck by lightening Monday night. More violent weather is expected in the area Tuesday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host;

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

More now, on the town of Joplin, Missouri, hit on Sunday by the deadliest single tornado in more than half a century. So far 117 people have been confirmed dead, and that toll is expected to rise further. Much of the town has been destroyed. President Obama says he'll visit on Sunday.

We reached the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, earlier this morning, as he was in his car, headed to Joplin.

Good morning, governor.

Governor JAY NIXON (Democrat, Missouri): Good morning.

KELLY: Can you tell us where you are right now, governor, and what you've been able to see for yourself, so far, of the destruction.

Gov. NIXON: Well, we've been down here over the last few days. I'm over a hill, coming down into Joplin, now, where the long line of total destruction exists. We've had folks out, first responders, searching all night to find folks that survived if possible. Yesterday, we were able to save 17 people with this literally foot-by-foot search to make sure.

The problem has been the rain and the storms continue, which made it very difficult for us to work.

KELLY: You said 17 people were found alive yesterday, which is great news. Do you have any information on how many people may still be missing?

Gov. NIXON: We'll be getting our morning review of that relatively soon here. The bottom line is unfortunately the number of missing far exceeds 17. Also, the number of folks that have passed, that number, we expect it to go up pretty precipitously as those bodies are recovered.

This is a horrific and traumatic storm that has been total devastation for a significant portion of this town.

KELLY: You mentioned rain that was hampering rescue efforts yesterday. We're seeing forecasts that more violent weather is on the way. How is that hampering efforts, right now, among the rescue crews and clean up workers?

Gov. NIXON: Well, it makes it very difficult for the dogs to be able to smell in the rain. It makes it very difficult for the machines to work. And plus, we had two police officers struck by lightning last evening. One very, very, very seriously injured. So having first responders in the middle of lightning storms has made it very, very difficult.

KELLY: Oh my. And in the middle of all this, the hospital - is the hospital actually able to treat patients at this point, as it was, of course, very badly hit by the tornado itself?

Gov. NIXON: The hospital is closed. We've moved folks to another hospital and we're doing triage (unintelligible). That hospital is closed and will be closed for a great deal - very long time. The top two floors were knocked off. There's no windows. Pieces of that hospital were found as far as 70 miles away.

KELLY: What is the priority now? It sounds like an overwhelming scene of devastation. Is there - are there certain things you need most urgently there now in Joplin?

Gov. NIXON: The first priority - well, if we can get a little weather window here this morning, the first priority is to finish the last two segments of literally foot-by-foot searching to see if there's anymore live folks underneath all this rubbish.

It's very difficult. There's large apartment complexes that are basically rubble. Folks may be in a basement. They may be crawlspaces. We need to get down there today. As the sun rises, our goal is going to be to get the rest of that house-by-house, car-by-car, block-by-block search completed before we go to the more difficult recovery phase.

KELLY: Are you getting the help that you need, so far, from federal agencies? The White House, of course, released a photo of President Obama calling you from Air Force One to offer his support.

Gov. NIXON: I talked to President Obama this morning already. We've gotten all the help that we've asked for. But we're focused on making sure, quite frankly, we're coordinating the help.

We're still in that early stage where you're just convinced in your gut that there are live people underneath piles of rubble that you need to go find. And we're using every tool we've got to save people. I mean, if we can - instead of counting body bags, if we can get to saving people that's still our goal as the sun comes up over Joplin, Missouri this morning.

KELLY: Are rescue workers there giving you any kind of window that they need to work within in order to get this job done and be successful pulling people out?

Gov. NIXON: Well, we should be able to complete the search here before nine to 10 AM this morning if we stay on there. They had to pull them off last night when the lightning hit the two police officers - one injured extremely seriously. We're hopeful he's going to make it.

But when you have emergency workers struck by lightning in the middle of a recovery, then you're basically forced to pull folks off for a few hours. That couple of hours they pulled folks back into the fire station and then redeployed them later last night to get out.

We'll be down at that center here in just a couple of minutes to see where we are. We're certainly not getting in the way of the folks out there. We're trying to assist them in whatever way we can.

But I just don't have any more accurate information about exactly how long it'll take to complete the hand-by-hand, foot-by-foot search.

KELLY: OK, governor. We wish you luck with those efforts. Thanks so much for taking a minute to talk.

Gov. NIXON: Thank you.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

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