JOPLIN, Mo. | The army of people coming to the aid of this tornado-ravaged city reached some 3,000 on Saturday as state officials intensified their efforts to identify the dead and release bodies to stricken families.
The death toll rose to 139, City Manager Mark Rohr said late Saturday. Earlier in the day, he had given a figure of 142. He did not elaborate on the change.
State officials say there are 142 sets of human remains at the morgue handling those killed by the storm, and some could be from the same victim.
Meanwhile, 100 people remained unaccounted for as search and rescue missions continued.
“I still hope we will find someone in a safe place, alive,” Fire Chief Mitch Randles said, adding: “I’m sure more remains will be found in the debris field.”
Some remains were found Saturday, which contributed to the rise in the death toll from 132 a day earlier. More than 500 volunteers are working in teams, including 31 dogs, spot-searching areas where dogs previously had sensed possible human remains. Heavy equipment arriving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is helping with those searches. Complete sweeps will resume later this week, Randles said.
While volunteers throughout the city were helping residents unpile their homes and sort the damage, state troopers were working around the clock notifying families of victims who have been confirmed dead.
By Saturday night, the state had notified family members of 73 victims whose identities had been confirmed, the Missouri Department of Public Safety said.
Officials noted that the 100 people unaccounted for include nine people who family members believe died in the tornado, but whose bodies have not been securely identified in the morgue.
The state has located 114 people who were on the list of missing.
Anyone who has information on people who have been reported missing is asked to call the Department of Public Safety at 417-895-6868. Anyone who needs to file a missing-person report should call 417-659-5464.
Six days since the EF5 tornado ripped this southwest Missouri city, frustration and anxiety have built among families who want to hold funeral services.
“We are working as quickly as possible, and we will make sure that every family impacted by this storm will get their loved one returned to them in the fastest way possible,” said Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
The state has marshaled more than 50 state troopers to notify families personally of confirmed dead, she said.
Also on Saturday, the family of a teenager thought to have been ejected or sucked from a vehicle while on the way home from graduation said his body had been found in a pond near the truck.
Will Norton’s aunt Tracey Presslor said his body wasn’t found sooner because of debris in the pond. She said the family received confirmation of his death late Friday.
Family members had said Norton and his father were on the road when the storm hit. The teen’s Hummer H3 flipped several times, throwing him from the vehicle, likely through the sunroof.
Officials also began to formalize the monstrous amount of long-term work ahead for the city and its residents. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bringing in contractors who will sort the mountains of debris.
The total of 139 killed makes this the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950, based on an assessment of figures from the National Weather Service. The tornado death toll for 2011 is now 520.
Until now, the highest recorded death toll in a single year was 519 in 1953. There were deadlier storms before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates, not on precise figures.