Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

Nation / World News

May 23, 2011

Tornado leaves much of Joplin unrecognizable

Local authorities fear death toll could eclipse 100

Joplin, MO — A tornado, which at its zenith was three-quarters of a mile wide, roared across the heart of Joplin at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds.

The coroners of Newton and Jasper counties were setting up a temporary morgue Sunday night in Joplin. The death toll at 11 p.m. Sunday was 11 people. That number, the coroners said, was expected to grow to more than 100.

Teams with body bags were being dispatched to Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Academy Sports & Outdoors, Sonic and other businesses between 15th and 20th streets along Range Line Road, one of the hardest hit areas in the city.

Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges, in a telephone interview Sunday night, said bodies were being recovered from places where people attempted to seek shelter from the storm but were crushed by falling roofs.

Bridges said family members were calling to find out whether loved ones were among the dead. In one instance, a man was identified by a cross that had been tattooed on his arm.

Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Joplin and Jasper County, said whole apartment complexes were blown away. Also hit were nursing homes.

C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin’s schools, said Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed. The roofs were blown off East Middle School and Cecil Floyd Elementary.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center took a direct hit from the tornado. Several patients in that hospital were transferred to Freeman Hospital West, which was overwhelmed by injured people. People were being delivered in pickup trucks, lying on doors and pieces of plywood that served as makeshift stretchers. Also overwhelmed was an emergency medical center that was set up at Memorial Hall.

Stammer said the tornado traveled from the west side of the city to the southeast. The damage zone stretched from about 26th Street and Schifferdecker Avenue to 20th Street and Prosperity Road.

The tornado was a half-mile wide when it hit Joplin. It grew to a width of three-quarters of a mile wide before dissipating to a width of a half-mile.

Stammer said the tornado was observed on radar by the National Weather Service station at Springfield. The sirens were sounded at 5:11 p.m. The lead time before the tornado hit was about 20 minutes.

Mike Griffith, a meteorologist with the weather service station, said a supercell thunderstorm intensified rapidly west of Joplin in Cherokee County, Kan.

“It was clear that a hook echo was forming and that a large tornado was developing,” he said. “We picked up the debris ball here on our radar. When you see that, it signifies that major damage is going on.”

Griffith said the tornado that struck Joplin was a right-turning tornado, the same type of tornado that struck Picher, Okla., and Newton County on May 10, 2008.

“Supercells often produce right-turning tornadoes, and when they do they are bigger tornadoes,” he said. “This is a high-end tornado. It could be an EF4, but that is only a guess at this point.”

The storm traveled across northern Newton County and into Lawrence County. Numerous tractor-trailer rigs were blown off Interstate 44.

Many major streets were impassable because of downed trees and utility poles. Emergency vehicles raced across the city, escorting injured residents to hospitals.

After the storm passed, Roy Holden stood in his front yard at 3110 W. 26th St., next to a utility pole that had blown over and blocked the street.

“We were lucky, very lucky,” Holden said. “It’s a lot worse just south of here. We have some tree limbs down and windows broken. I’m finding all kinds of things in my yard that’s not mine.

Just east of Holden’s house, Tom Rogers was not so lucky. He walked along 26th Street with his daughter to view the storm damage.

“Our house is gone,” he said. “It’s just gone. We heard the tornado sirens for the second time. All of a sudden, everything came crashing down on us. We pulled our heads up and there was nothing. It was gone.”

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