JOPLIN, Missouri, May 23 – The deadliest single tornado to strike the United States in nearly 60 years has reduced the Missouri town of Joplin to rubble, ripping buildings apart and killing at least 89 people.
Disaster struck on Sunday evening when, with little warning, the monster twister tore a strip six miles (9.5 kilometers) long and more than a 1/2 mile (0.8 kilometers) wide through the center of the town.
Rescuers worked through the night to try to find people trapped in their homes, relying on torchlight as they listened for terrified cries from survivors piercing through the blackness.
Heavy winds and strong rain forced teams to halt the effort on Monday morning and some rescuers took advantage of the brief respite to catch a bit of much-needed sleep inside one badly damaged bank.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency late Sunday and activated the National Guard to help out after one of the worst disasters in the state\’s history.
President Barack Obama called Nixon and offered his condolences to those affected, assuring the governor that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would provide whatever assistance was needed.
"The president has directed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to travel to Missouri to ensure the state has all the support it needs," a White House statement said, adding a FEMA team had already been dispatched.
Caring for the injured was made more difficult because the main hospital, Saint John\’s Regional Medical Center, had to be evacuated after suffering a direct hit — the tornado ripped off its roof and smashed all its windows.
US media reported that cries could still be heard early Monday from survivors trapped in the wreckage, with the latest tragedy coming less than a month after a horrific tornado outbreak left 354 dead across seven US states.
Authorities estimated that up to 30 percent of Joplin, which lies near the border with Oklahoma and Kansas, had been damaged by the tornado, which experts said carried winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) per hour.
It was the deadliest of 46 tornadoes reported to the National Weather Service in seven states on Sunday.
"It\’s a war zone," Scott Meeker of the Joplin Globe newspaper told AFP.
"We\’ve got hundreds of wounded being treated at Memorial Hall (hospital), but they were quickly overwhelmed and ran out of supplies, so they\’ve opened up a local school as a triage center."
Obama earlier sent his "deepest condolences" to victims and said the federal government stood ready to help Americans as needed.
"Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives in the tornadoes and severe weather that struck Joplin, Missouri, as well as communities across the Midwest today," the president said in a statement sent from Air Force One as he flew to Europe.
"We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time."
People in Joplin clawed through the rubble looking for friends, family and neighbors after the storm tore buildings apart and turned cars into crumpled heaps of metal.
Flames and thick black smoke poured out of the wreckage of shattered homes, and water gushed out of broken pipes as shocked survivors surveyed the damage, early photos showed.
A tangled medical helicopter lay in the rubble outside Saint John\’s Regional Medical Center.
Jeff Law, 23, was able to take shelter in a storm cellar and was overwhelmed by what he saw when he emerged.
"I\’ve lived in this neighborhood my entire life, and I didn\’t know where I was," Law told the Springfield News-Leader. "Everything was unrecognizable, completely unrecognizable. It\’s like Armageddon."
The emergency manager at the neighboring county of Springfield-Greene was told that at least 24 people were killed before he could rush over to help, a spokeswoman told AFP.
Officials said the last twister to wreak such loss of life occurred in 1953 in Worcester, Massachusetts, when a tornado killed 90 people.
On Saturday, a deadly tornado pummeled the east Kansas town of Reading, killing a man and damaging an estimated 80 percent of Reading\’s structures, mostly wood-frame buildings.
Meanwhile, a tornado was also responsible for the death of one person in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday, authorities said. At least 30 others in that city and its suburbs were injured.