JOPLIN, Mo. | A devastating tornado Sunday flattened large areas of Joplin — perhaps most of the city — leaving behind at least 24 dead and an untold number of injured.
It was one of several twisters that ripped through parts of the Midwest on Sunday, killing at least one person in Minneapolis. The damage appeared to be the worst in this southwest Missouri city.
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“I would say 75 percent of the town is virtually gone,” Kathy Dennis of the American Red Cross told CNN.
Joplin spokeswoman Lynn Onstot confirmed Sunday night that at least 24 people were dead in the Joplin area, “but we fear the number will climb.”
She spoke in the public safety building at 303 E. Third St. moments before a Jasper County sheriff’s deputy stopped at the top of a stairwell and spoke into his phone.
“I’ve been sitting here with two bodies for the last two hours. I was wondering where you were at,” the deputy told the person on the other end. Then later, “No, I got to go get myself some body bags.”
Phone communications in and out of the city of about 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City were largely cut off, and even agencies offering help had trouble getting through Sunday night.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center was evacuating nearly 100 patients after the hospital took a direct hit from the tornado, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman at the hospital’s sister facility. The patients were being taken to other hospitals.
Witnesses said windows were blown out on the top floors of the hospital. The storm spread debris about 60 miles away, with medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items falling to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
The Springfield hospital was sending ambulances and other resources to Joplin to help the response.
On social networking sites, people with ties to Joplin and even those without were calling for prayers. Some people were quick to post that they and their families were OK, or to get the word out that loved ones were missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines but able to text and use social media.
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 said. “Then you could hear everything go. It tore the roof off my house, everybody’s house. I came outside and there was nothing left.”
He said people were walking around the streets outside trying to check on neighbors, but in many cases there were no homes to check.
“There were people wandering the streets, all mud-covered,” he said. “I’m talking to them, asking if they knew where their family is. Some of them didn’t know, and weren’t sure where they were. All the street markers were gone.”
The tornado also caused significant damage to at least four buildings in the Joplin School District.
Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said school will be canceled today and probably for the next several days.
She said the twister damaged Joplin High, Cecil Floyd Elementary, Franklin Technology Center and the central office building. Some of the schools that escaped damage were being opened as shelters.
A high school graduation was held at Missouri Southern State University on Sunday afternoon. Many people barely got home before the twister hit.
Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. Nixon said the state and local law enforcement agencies were coordinating search and rescue and recovery operations.
Officials with the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City have scheduled a conference call for 7 a.m. today with Red Cross colleagues in southwest Missouri to hear about the damage in Joplin and what assistance might be needed. As many as 30 local volunteers could be ready, said Duane Hallock, spokesman for the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City.
Representatives of Kansas City Power Light were trying to reach representatives of the Empire District Electric Co., which serves the Joplin area, but were unsuccessful.
“We expect to talk with them tomorrow,” KCP communications director Katie McDonald said Sunday night.
Sunday’s storms in the Midwest followed a tornado Saturday night that swept through the small eastern Kansas town of Reading, killing one person and destroying at least 20 homes.
In Joplin, extensive damage was reported on the south side of the city and along Rangeline Road, a major commercial thoroughfare in the city.
The tornado struck Joplin about 5:45 p.m., according to reports transmitted to the Springfield branch of the National Weather Service. St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin was severely damaged, and scanner traffic indicated emergency responders from surrounding communities were converging on the city to assist with victims.
The hospital system owns and operates multiple EMS crews throughout southwest Missouri and was sending them to Joplin to assist.
Survivors reported that more than 20 semitrailer trucks were blown over by the tornado. Television stations were knocked off the air and radio stations were asking for help from anyone who could lend a hand. Victims were trapped in the rubble of houses and in cars.
The roofs of two city fire stations collapsed.
Witnesses said the tornado appeared to have multiple vortices swirling within it as it moved through Joplin, according to weather service reports.
Reporter makes a dash for safety as twister bears down. | A8
Offers of assistance begin pouring into Reading. | A8
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