Search And Rescue Efforts Continue In Joplin

Guest

Missy Shelton, reporter, KSMU

Rescue workers continue to search from house to house in Joplin, Missouri for survivors of Sunday's tornado. The massive twister killed more than 100 people. And additional severe storms have slowed rescue efforts. So far, Gov. Jay Nixon says at least 17 people have been rescued from the wreckage.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The number of people killed by the tornado that flattened parts of Joplin, Missouri is now at 117, which makes it the deadliest to hit the United States in almost six decades. Tornado warnings and sirens rang out about 20 minutes before the twister touched down, but still that was not enough time for many to escape.

How do you get tornado warnings in your town, and what do you do? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Missy Shelton is a reporter at member station KSMU in Springfield, Missouri. She's in Joplin and joins us by phone. Thanks for taking the time.

MISSY SHELTON: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: And where are you right now and tell us what can you see there.

SHELTON: Sure. I am on Rangeline Drive at the Best Western Hotel, and I'm just south of the most significant area of devastation, just south of some of the big-box stores that got flattened by the tornado.

CONAN: And I understand you spent much of the time today at one of those big-box stores, Home Depot.

SHELTON: That's exactly right. And, you know, the remarkable thing is you wouldn't even know it was a Home Depot if you couldn't see part of one wall and the big orange swath of Home Depot paint across that wall, because other than that, it's just a pile of twisted metal and broken up concrete. It's really difficult to tell what that store was.

CONAN: And talking to people there, what are they saying? What's the reaction?

SHELTON: Well, of course, you know, people are really still thinking search and rescue at this point. That's what was happening out at the Home Depot today. I talked to the team leader there. It's an urban search and rescue unit. And he was telling me that, you know, they're not very optimistic. They understand that, as the tornado came toward that store, people ran from the parking lot inside to seek shelter, huddled down against the front wall, which is a big slab of concrete. The roof was ripped off by the tornado, and then that front wall, concrete, fell. So they were trying to find out what may have happened to those poor people who were huddled up against that wall as the tornado came through.

CONAN: And do we have any idea, any realistic number of the people who are still considered missing?

SHELTON: No one is giving a number that I've talked to. It's just too hard to say. There are, of course, lots of different ways people are trying to track down loved ones. I talked to a man yesterday whose sister and brother-in-law were still missing. So there are just different efforts afoot to try to connect people. You know, it's also hard because the - one of the main hospitals in Joplin was hit, as everyone knows. And patients have been sent out to different hospitals, so there's still sort of an effort to sort that out and find out where family members are, who are in the hospital.

CONAN: And as you watched the search and rescue effort under way, how is it being conducted? Were they using dogs? Were they just shouting out: make a noise, make a noise?

SHELTON: You know, earlier, I didn't witness any of this, but the fire chief in Joplin said that there are reports of noises coming from piles of rubble, and of course the rescue workers immediately respond to those reports. In the case of the Home Depot, there were a couple of dogs with this urban search and rescue team that were standing around. They hadn't - I didn't see them taking them over to the site yet. There were massive backhoes and heavy machinery as they're trying to just plow through and remove as much of this as they can. On the other hand, of course, where they think there might be people alive, or bodies, they're being very delicate and very careful not to move things too hastily.

CONAN: And we're asking people today what they do, how they get the message of a tornado warning and what they do when they do. As I understand in Joplin there, officials say the sirens rang out about 20 minutes before the tornado hit. But a lot of residents, including the hospital spokesman where so much damage occurred, said they only got about a five minutes warning.

SHELTON: Well, there are discrepancies, and it's unclear what happened. I was an hour up the road in Springfield, where I live. And, you know, when the sirens go off, they're not actually designed to be heard indoors. That's one reason that broadcasters are plugged into the emergency alert system, so that when the tornado is - warning is issued, then that alert system overrides normal programming to let people know what's going on. So it's possible that the sirens did go off earlier, but folks inside the hospital may not have heard them because those sirens are not made to be heard indoors.

CONAN: And when you talk to people there today, what did they tell you they did when they heard the warning?

Ms. SHELTON: You know, we - everyone who lives here, practically, knows that you get into an interior room, a closet, a bathroom, a hallway, something without windows. If you're fortunate enough to have a basement, you would get to the basement.

I've seen lots of comments online, on NPR stories, you know, why don't more people have basements out in this area that clearly gets lots of tornadoes? And I talked to homebuilders out here. It's so incredibly expensive and difficult to actually get down into the ground to build basements, so most homes don't have basements. Many people do take the step to install storm shelters. And, of course, if you have a basement or storm shelter, that's your first choice.

CONAN: Well, we will let you get back to work. I know you're very busy, and we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.

Ms. SHELTON: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Missy Shelton of member station KSMU there in Springfield, Missouri. She joined us on the phone today from Joplin, where she's reporting on the situation there. And, of course, that city is bracing for another set of powerful storms, possibly even more tornadoes. And tonight's, it could be very severe indeed.

In any case, what do you do? How do you get the message of tornadoes? And what do you do when you hear it? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

John is on the line from Elkhart, Indiana.

JOHN (Caller): Thanks, Neal. In my town here, we have a tornado warning system. They're as big - they are almost - they're horn-shaped sirens on top of light poles. But the problem is they use them far too often. They use them during, pretty much, any severe weather. And, now, most residents here, myself included, have taken to just ignoring them. And it's kind of one of those things, they've just use it too often, too many cries of wolf, we just don't believe it anymore. And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Well, John, the comment would be - after you hear about something like what happened in Joplin, might you change your behavior?

JOHN: Possibly, I - maybe the city could take that into consideration in deciding on how often they use it. I think that should be something that could use discussion, especially after something like this happens.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to - this is Pamela and Pamela with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

PAMELA (Caller): Yeah. We're just an hour of Joplin. What we do, we have a closet that we go to in the, you know, the bottom floor of our house and (unintelligible) but yeah, nobody has a basement here. Our big concern right now is I have an eight-year-old who is, now, absolutely terrified of storms. And how do we, you know, how do we calm him down just when there, you know, just when there's a regular thunderstorm going on?

We have a tornado system - you know, a tornado warning system here that is actually is pretty good because we are in the tornado alley.

CONAN: And, obviously, you must get, at some times of the year, an awful lot of warnings.

PAMELA: Oh, yes, we do, very definitely. We've spent some very pleasant and not so pleasant memories in the closet downstairs.

CONAN: And you take every single one seriously or, like our earlier caller, do you worry sometimes, oh, well, this one, I don't know.

PAMELA: It's a hit or miss. My husband is a former weatherman, so it's -I usually wake him up and say, OK, honey, are we going now or not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Former weatherman, OK.

PAMELA: Yeah, he was.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Pamela. Good luck.

PAMELA: OK.

CONAN: Bye-bye. This is from Cathy, who writes by email. We live in an area on a very high hill. Our warning signals do not send different messages for a tornado alert versus the flashflood alert, neither does the NOAA radio we bought but keep turned off because we would never get any sleep. There seems to be a flashflood danger every time it rains. I wish we could be sleep - I wish we could sleep and be safe.

Let's go next to Jason, Jason with us from Zanesville in Ohio.

JASON (Caller): Hi. Yeah. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JASON: Actually, we have a pretty - it's relatively new, but it's a pretty neat system, where instead of just the siren, they actually have it set up that they can make announcements over the air and you can hear it inside. I mean, it's extremely loud. I mean, it'll wake you up when you're sleeping, but it's really neat because you can hear it clear as day inside. It sounds like someone's - almost sounds like someone's talking in your head. But it seems to be effective, and it gets people's attention because they know exactly what the situation is without, you know, having to wonder oh, what do those sirens mean.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And what do you do then?

JASON: Well, usually, I have emergency bag prepared, you know, filled with a weather radio, water, that sort of thing, and just head down to the basement and wait it out. And you know, we usually get the all clear or hear it on the weather radio when it safe to come back up.

CONAN: And about how long does that usually take?

JASON: I would say it seems to be about 20 minutes, 20 to 30 minutes on the occasions they have had to use it, which they don't use it very often. They do - they will do a test of it about once a month. But, you know, they can make that pretty clear, just based on the fact that they can tell you exactly what, you know, what they're using it for.

CONAN: All right. Jason, thanks very much.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye. Let's go next to Gene, Gene with us Glenpool in Oklahoma.

GENE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GENE: Well, just like some of your previous callers, seems like the sirens go off way too often around here. Being this close to Tulsa, we get them a lot. And - but one of our local news stations, you can sign up online, and they will actually call your house if you're in the direct path of a tornado. And...

CONAN: They'll call your house, some sort of robo call?

JEAN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You know, that's - whenever you get a phone call and it's a meteorologist on the phone, you know, recorded conversation, saying, you know, you need to find cover, you take that pretty seriously versus the sirens.

CONAN: So you trust the local weather guy more than the NOAA signals?

JEAN: Yeah. Yeah, we do. I mean, being in Tulsa, we've got trouble where you have - I have heard some of the best meteorologists around in the country. We deal with this kind of weather so often, so we tend to trust them more.

CONAN: All right. Jean, thank you very much. It's interesting.

JEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Susanna, Susanna with us from Johnson County in Kansas.

SUSANNA (Caller): Hi. My complaint is all buildings should have a secure place for people to go, because a lot of the apartment complexes and stuff, you go to in an interior wall in the building that they're not really built to be Dorothy rooms. So...

CONAN: Dorothy, of course, the character in "The Wizard of Oz"?

SUSANNA: Right. Which those rooms are impenetrable for, like, 200-mile-an-hour winds.

CONAN: And it's...

SUSANNA: They need to - and they don't build them in the buildings.

CONAN: And why not? Isn't it part of the...

SUSANNA: I have no idea of why not, because to me, it's good sense.

CONAN: Might it not be part of the construction code, requiring such a facility?

SUSANNA: Well, I think it should probably go from Canada down to Mexico and from the western part of the mountain - or the eastern part of the mountains to the western part of the mountains. This whole section of United States should have that kind of code. And we...

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Susanna.

SUSANNA: Thanks.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we can go to Amy. And Amy is with us from Medina in Ohio.

AMY (Caller): Yes. So last night, we were barbecuing. The siren went off. And we stood there and watched the parents at the ball field behind our house argue with the children. The children wanted to leave. The parents wanted to finish the game.

CONAN: Really?

AMY: Mm-hmm. The kids knew from school and from the training they've received. The parents are like, but, but what about the game? And the parents - the kids are like, we've got to get out of here. Don't you hear the fire alarm?

CONAN: Who won the argument?

AMY: The kids did. The parents finally cleared out. We went in, watched the local TV station that has excellent coverage. And it's slid north of us. And there was quite a reasonable amount of the image in the Cleveland area. So, yeah...

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm...

AMY: The kids won out, thank heavens.

CONAN: Thank heavens. All right. Thanks very much for the call, Amy.

AMY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And this finally from Tanya by email: I live in central Oklahoma, where I've resided for the last 33 years. I think I speak for many of us when I say, when I hear the tornado sirens, I go outside and look at the sky. I was in the car once when they went off though, and it was terrifying. That was on May 3, 1999. Fortunately, my town was south of the carnage. Conditions are right here for outbreaks today. I plan on keeping an eye on the weather, obviously. Two neighbors have shelters, so we're OK there.

Well, we wish her and all of the rest of you who live in tornado country the best of luck and keep an eye and an ear out. And if there's a lesson from Joplin, when you hear the sirens, go down to the basement.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

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