Monday, May 23, 2011

Joplin searches through wreckage

Downtown Joplin before the latest tornado

Joplin is a city in southern Jasper County and northern Newton County in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Missouri. Joplin is the largest city in Jasper County, though it is not the county seat. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 50,150. In 2009, the surrounding Metropolitan Statistical Area had an estimated population of 174,300.

Although often believed to be named for ragtime composer Scott Joplin who lived in Sedalia, Missouri, Joplin is actually named for the Reverend Harris Joplin, the founder of the area's first Methodist congregation. Joplin was established in 1873 and expanded significantly from the wealth created by the mining of zinc, its growth faltering after World War II when the price of the mineral collapsed. The city gained additional renown as one of the stops on the historic Route 66.

On May 6, 1971, Joplin was struck by a severe tornado resulting in one dead and 50 people injured, along with major damage to many houses and businesses.

On May 22, 2011, Joplin was hit by a very intense tornado causing 89+ deaths and injuries along with major damage to many houses, St. John Medical Center, and multiple school buildings.

USAToday: Joplin searches through wreckage
Joplin residents searched through major tornado devastation Monday morning as another severe storm threatened to bear down on the region and rescuers warned the death toll could climb.

At least 89 people were killed in the massive tornado that tore a 6-mile swath through southwestern Missouri, hitting Joplin, destroying a hospital, flattening a high school, slamming cars into buildings and splintering the bark off trees.

The damage was breathtaking in scope.

"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," said resident Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."

The new storm moving into the area was likely to hamper door-to-door searches for survivors.

"It's definitely not making the process any easier," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Doug Cramer.

He said the storm heading toward the city could have wind speeds up to 60 mph and hail as big as a 1/4-inch around.

A massive storm system dropped the tornado into the heart of Joplin Sunday evening.

Cramer said a team of meteorologists was en route to Joplin to begin determining the path and devastation of the tornado. He said meteorologists had not determined the scale of the tornado nor did they have a solid number of dead or injured.

Roger Dedick and his wife survived the storm by taking shelter in the couple's garage, which is partly underground. There are no walls on the house the couple lived in for 17 years.

"That's all that's left," Dedick said, pointing to a section of foundation with a small stairwell.

Dedick said his ears popped as the tornado blew the windows out of the garage. He said he had to use a metal bar to pry his way out of the rubble of his home.

Lance Gaines has been in the Joplin area since 11 last night. He's a member of a search-and-rescue group made up mostly of firefighters from Fayetteville, Ark.

Gaines said he's been searching almost non-stop since arriving in Joplin and has not found anyone in the rubble.

Searching for survivors is difficult because all the street signs have been knocked down, so it's difficult to pinpoint a location.

The Springfield Police Department sent 10 officers last night to help relief efforts, public information officer Matt Brown said.

He said officers are assisting Joplin officials by maintaining perimeters around damaged buildings and offering other services.

City Manager Mark Rohr announced the number of known dead at a pre-dawn news conference outside the wreckage of a hospital that took a direct hit from the storm. His own home was among the buildings destroyed as the twister swept through this city of about 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City.

The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. One person was killed in Minneapolis.

The devastation in Missouri was the worst of the day, reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.

Sunday's storm in Joplin hit a hospital packed with patients and a commercial area including a Home Depot construction store, numerous smaller businesses, restaurants and a grocery store. Jasper County Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer said about 2,000 buildings were damaged.

Among the worst-hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center. The staff had just a few moments' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.

In the parking lot, a helicopter lay crushed on its side, its rotors torn apart and windows smashed. Nearby, a pile of cars lay crumpled into a single mass of twisted metal. Matt Sheffer dodged downed power lines, trees and closed streets to make it to his dental office across from the hospital. Rubble littered a flattened lot where a pharmacy, gas station and some doctors' offices once stood.

"My office is totally gone. Probably for two to three blocks, it's just leveled," he said. "The building that my office was in was not flimsy. It was 30 years old and two layers of brick. It was very sturdy and well-built."

St. John's patients were evacuated to other hospitals in the region, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the medical center's sister hospital in Springfield.

Early Monday morning, floodlights from a temporary triage facility lit what remained of the hospital that once held as many 367 patients. Police officers combed the surrounding area for bodies.

Miranda Lewis, a spokeswoman for St. John's, was at home when the tornado sirens began going off. Early Monday, she had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike, although she had seen the damaged building.

"It's like what you see someplace else, honestly," Lewis said. "That's a terrible way to say it, but you don't recognize what's across the street.

"I had seen it on television, but until you're standing right here and see the devastation, you can't believe it."

Michael Spencer, a national Red Cross spokesman who assisted in the aftermath of a tornado that devastated nearby Pierce City in 2003, was stunned.

"I've been to about 75 disasters, and I've never seen anything quite like this before," Spencer said. "You don't typically see metal structures and metal frames torn apart, and that's what you see here."

Triage centers and shelters set up around the city quickly filled to capacity. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, nurses and other emergency workers from across the region treated critically injured patients.

At another makeshift unit at a Lowe's home improvement store, wooden planks served as beds. Outside, ambulances and fire trucks waited for calls. During one stretch after midnight Monday, emergency vehicles were scrambling nearly every two minutes.

Winds from the storm carried debris up to 60 miles away. Medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items fell to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.

Travel through and around Joplin was difficult as Interstate 44 was shut down and streets were clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.

Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search-and-recovery operations. President Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with state and local agencies.

Jeff Lehr, a reporter for The Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to make his way to a basement closet.

"There was a loud huffing noise, my windows started popping. I had to get downstairs, glass was flying. I opened a closet and pulled myself into it," he told the Associated Press. "Then you could hear everything go. It tore the roof off my house, everybody's house. I came outside, and there was nothing left."

An aching helplessness settled over residents, many of whom could only wander the wreckage bereft and wondering about the fate of loved ones.

Justin Gibson, 30, huddled with three relatives outside the tangled debris field of what remained of a Home Depot. He pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into the store's ruins and said it belonged to his roommate's brother. "He was last seen here with his two little girls," ages 4 and 5, Gibson said.

"We've been trying to get ahold of him since the tornado happened," Gibson said, adding his own house had been leveled.

"It's just gone. Everything in that neighborhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can't get ahold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are," he said, referring to his three children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years.

"I don't know the extent of this yet," Gibson said, "but I know I'll have friends and family dead."

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