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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wiped off the map: Shocking before and after images reveal how giant tornado ripped apart Joplin's city landmarks

By John Stevens

-Devastating 198mph tornado tore a path a mile wide and six miles long straight through Joplin, Missouri
-Deadliest single tornado in more than 60 years with at least 125 people killed
-1,500 people still remain unaccounted for, according to fire officials
-'This is a very serious situation brewing,' warns Storm Prediction Center as forecasters say city could be hit again
-Tornado was rare 'multivortex' twister, reveals National Weather Service
-Obama to visit region on Sunday as he says tornado was 'devastating and heartbreaking'

The aftermath: A 198mph tornado tore a path a mile wide and six miles long straight through Joplin, Missouri devastating all in its wake

As shell-shocked residents of tornado-hit Joplin braced themselves for another powerful storm system this evening, new aerial images emerged showing in terrifying detail the path of the twister which destroyed the Missouri city.

The shocking photos reveal for the first time the true extent of the damage caused when the mile-wide tornado that killed at least 122 people blasted much of the city off the map and slammed straight into its hospital.

Forecasters warned residents on Tuesday to prepare themselves for a looming storm system that has all the early signs of spawning more deadly tornadoes.

The way things used to be: This Google Street Map view shows the same place as the above picture, before the horrific tornado struck

Tonight the stunned residents of Joplin faced the horrifying possibility of more storms - but a tornado warning was cancelled later in the evening.

‘This is a very serious situation brewing,’ said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center.

About 1,500 people are still unaccounted for, it was announced Tuesday, leading to fears that the death count could rise much higher.

Tonight tornadoes touched down in Kansas and Oklahoma - including one on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, which reportedly tore a 50-mile long path through rush-hour traffic.

Devastated: Aerial photo shows 26th street, the main route through the centre of Joplin, Missouri. On the right is St Mary's elementary school

Housing: Whole residential neighbourhoods were destroyed by the powerful tornado when it went straight through the centre of the city that has has 50,000 people

Blown away: The remains of this apartment block surround what was once a swimming pool. Around 2,000 homes are thought to have been destroyed

Closed for business: The Home Depot do-it-yourself store was where many dead bodies have been recovered. Many of the shop shelves are still intact though

Grocery store: The city's Walmart superstore is barely recognisable in this photo from after Sunday's tornado that killed over 100 people

Shopping mall: This line of shops was severely damaged by the storm system when it struck on Sunday evening at around 6pm

Hospital: The St John's Medical Center was at the heart of the tornado's path through the city. Hundreds of patients had to be evacuated

Fire chief Robert Daus said that 500 people had been injured by the tornado, in addition to the 1,500 people who remain unaccounted for.

But he said the high number of people still recorded as missing could be a reflection of the widespread breakdown of communication systems in the city.

Thunderstorms that are moving across southeast Kansas, central Oklahoma and north Texas this afternoon are forecast to move into the Joplin area between 10pm and 2am tonight.

Destroyed: This incredible aerial image reveals how the tornado tore off the roof of Joplin's Home Depot

Flattened: This aerial photograph shows the scale of the destruction to the Home Depot store

Flattened: Damage is seen a day after the tornado tore through Joplin killing at least 122 people in Joplin, a town of about 50,000

Decimation: Residential buildings are shown flattened in this aerial shot over Joplin

Razed to the ground: Joplin's Walmart store was completely destroyed by Sunday's devastating twister

Wasteland: The horror of Sunday's tornado is laid bare by this harrowing panoramic shot of Joplin

Authorities said they were stepping up search efforts as they raced against the forecasts of more bad weather on the way.

Rescue crews dug through piles of splintered houses and crushed cars in a desperate final search for survivors.

Emergency teams accompanied by cadaver dogs picked their way through the rubble of thousands of homes and businesses laid to waste by the deadliest tornado in the U.S. in 64 years.

One team sifted through the remains of a Home Depot store, while others searched a Walmart and wrecked apartments as the clock ticked down on another round of severe storms.

Horseshoe: A destroyed neighbourhood is seen in Joplin on Tuesday after a big tornado moved through much of the city

Ruins: The winding path of the devastating tornado is seen in this aerial picture of Joplin, Missouri

Savaged: The path of the powerful tornado is seen in an aerial photo over Joplin, Missouri

Destroyed: The tornado ruined thousands of houses in Joplin, Missouri

From the sky: Uprooted trees and building without roofs lie devastated in Joplin, Missouri after the tornado hit on Sunday

Thousands of houses have been reduced to slabs, cars crushed like soda cans and shaken residents have been roaming streets in search of missing family members.

The National Weather Service said on Tuesday that the tornado appears to have had more than one vortex.

Storm Prediction Center director Russell Schneider said video evidence shows Sunday's tornado appeared to be a rare ‘multivortex’ twister.

Multivortex tornadoes contain two or more small and intense subvortices that orbit the centre of the larger tornado circulation.

Survivors of the disaster were today coming to terms with the sheer scale of the devastation that had been wreaked upon their city. Still visibly shaken, many stared solemnly over the landscape.

'That's all that's left,' Roger Dedick said as he pointed to a section of foundation, the remains of his home of 17 years.

He had had to use a metal bar to pry himself out of his crushed home.

Searching: Matt Asbill digs through the wreckage of the office of his engineering business on the east side of Joplin

Rescue: Search dogs assist in the hunt amongst the ruins of devastated buildings for survivors of the tornado in Missouri

Down the street, Carolyn Hall fought back tears as she and her teenage sons combed their destroyed home hoping to find some clothes and the family cat.

Only a few interior walls remained standing, but after a desperate search came a ray of hope when they found the terrified cat hiding under a bed.

Around the corner, Dottie and Tim Sumners had uncovered scores of framed photos and albums, memories that survived when the massive mile-wide tornado, with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour hit late Sunday.

'I'll never disregard the sirens again,' said Mrs Sumners.

Her husband looked on grimly at the scenes of devastation, and said they would rebuild their home of 33 years. 'We'll make it,' he said.

Kelley Fritz, 45, rummaged through the remains of a storage building with her husband, Jimmy. They quickly realised they would never find the belongings they stored there, and that they had lost much of what was in their home after the tornado ripped away the roof.

Their sons, aged 20 and 17, went outside after the storm and saw that every home was destroyed.

‘My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back,’ Mrs Fritz said. ‘My husband and I went out and saw two or three dead bodies on the ground.’

Flattened: Members of Missouri Task Force One search-and-rescue team work at the tornado-damaged Home Depot store in Joplin

Shock: Joplin residents are still coming to terms with the loss of their homes as rescue workers continue efforts to find survivors

Chaos: A destroyed apartment complex is seen in an aerial view over Joplin

Mrs Fritz said she was surprised she survived. ‘You could just feel the air pull up and it was so painful. I didn't think we were going to make it, it happened so fast.’

'I've never seen such devastation - just block upon block upon block of homes just completely gone,' said former state legislator Gary Burton who showed up to help at a volunteer center at Missouri Southern State University.

Another resident had to run through the storm as power lines and trees crashed around him.

Winds from the storm carried debris up to 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.

Matt Sheffer said: 'My office is totally gone. Probably for two to three blocks, it's just levelled.

‘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.’

As residents came to terms with the damage, President Barack Obama said he will travel to Missouri on Sunday to meet with people affected by what he called 'devastating and heartbreaking' tornadoes.

Recovery: Beverly Winans, left, Debbie Spurlin and Austin Spurlin look for what they can salvage from their home after it was destroyed

Powerful: Aerial pictures reveal the devastation caused by the tornado in Joplin, Missouri

Lost: Carra Reed looks at a friends home that was destroyed when the massive tornado passed through Joplin, Missouri

Missing: Rescue workers and neighbours search for victims and survivors

The President says he wants Midwesterners whose lives were disrupted by the deadly storms last weekend to know that the federal government will use all resources at its disposal to help them recover and rebuild.

Obama spoke in London, the second stop on his four-country, six-day tour of Europe. Obama is due back in Washington Saturday night.

Meteorologists issued a new tornado warning for the devastated city today as forecasters warned large swathes of the country to brace for more big storms on Tuesday.

A tornado watch was issued on Monday for Oklahoma and parts of southern Kansas due to an 'evolving tornado threat', said Russell Schneider, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.

'We are currently forecasting a major severe weather outbreak for Tuesday over the central United States with strong tornadoes likely over Oklahoma, Kansas, extreme northern Texas, southwest Missouri,' Mr Schneider said.

The warning was extended to the area around Joplin, Missouri, and included cities such as Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City.

'On Wednesday, the system will shift eastward to the Mississippi River valley,' Mr Schneider said, including central Illinois and Indiana, southeast Missouri and the southeastern states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and much of Arkansas.

Officials said the tornado that hit at around 6pm on Sunday was the single deadliest in the country since in Woodward, Oklahoma, in April 1947.

Joplin fire chief Mitch Randles estimated the damage covered a quarter or more of the city of about 50,000 people some 160 miles south of Kansas City and said his home was among those destroyed. ‘It cut the city in half,’ he said.

Little hope: Ryan Harper pauses in the shadow of a splintered tree as he searches for a missing friend after who may have been pulled away by the twister

A time for coming together: A couple drenched by the heavy rain walk arm-in-arm towards a building ravaged by the killer storm, and right, a woman whose life has been shattered overnight by the tornado breaks down in tears and has to be comforted by a friend

Frantic: Volunteers claw through the rubble in search of survivors, but grey storm clouds loom overhead threatening to disrupt the efforts

The National Weather Service said the tornado packed winds of up to 198 mph.

The weather service's director, Jack Hayes, said the storm was given a preliminary label as an EF4 - the second-highest rating given to twisters. The rating is assigned to storms based on the damage they cause.

Hayes said the storm had winds of 190 to 198 miles per hour. He said survey teams from the National Weather Service are on the scene and will make a final determination on the rating Tuesday.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help out after one of the worst disasters in the state's history.

President Barack Obama called Nixon after details of teh tragedy emergedand offered his condolences to those affected, assuring the governor that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would provide whatever assistance was 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 neighbours at this very difficult time.'

Not since a tornado in June 1953 in Flint, Michigan, had a single twister been so deadly. That storm 60 years ago also killed 116, according to the National Weather Service.

But authorities this time are prepared to find more bodies in the rubble throughout this gritty, town of 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City.

Mr Nixon said he did not want to guess how high the death toll would eventually climb. But he added: 'Clearly, it's on its way up.'

Seventeen people were pulled alive from the rubble by rescuers who have frantically pulled away debris from shattered houses. Many more people are believed to have been injured.

While many residents had up to 17 minutes of warning, rain and hail may have drowned out the sirens.

Larry Bruffy said he heard the first warning but looked out from his garage and saw nothing.

'Five minutes later, the second warning went off,' he said. 'By the time we tried to get under the house, it already went over us.'

As rescuers toiled in the debris, a strong thunderstorm lashed the crippled city.

Rescue crews had to move gingerly around downed power lines and jagged chunks of debris as they hunted for victims and hoped for survivors. Fires, gas fumes and unstable buildings posed constant threats.

New dawn: The sun rises over devastated Joplin on Tuesday as the search for survivors continues

Evacuated: A destroyed home is seen after a massive tornado passed through Joplin

Heartache: Two women fight back the tears as they hug in front of a house ripped apart by the tornado. In a symbolic show of strength, the U.S. flag flies from a tree behind them

Wiped off the landscape: Meghan Miller stands in the middle of a destroyed neighbourhood as she checks on her sister-in-law's home, which only days before had stood in the same spot

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.

Cries could still be heard early Monday from survivors trapped in the wreckage.

City manager Mark Rohr announced the number of known dead at a pre-dawn news conference outside the wreckage of the hospital.

He said the twister cut a path nearly 6 miles long through the centre of the city. Much of the city's south side was levelled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said about 2,000 buildings were damaged.

Authorities began a door-to-door search on Monday morning, with rescuers moving cautiously around downed power lines and jagged debris.

A series of gas leaks caused fires around the city overnight, and Missouri governor Jay Nixon said some were still burning.

Mr Nixon said he feared the death toll would rise but also expected survivors to be found in the rubble.

‘I don't think we're done counting,’ he said. ‘I still believe that because of the size of the debris and the number of people involved that there are lives to be saved.’

Crews found bodies during the night in vehicles the storm had flipped over, torn apart and left looking like crushed cans.

Triage centers and shelters set up around the city quickly filled to capacity.

Six people died there, five of them patients, plus one visitor.

The storm blew out hundreds of windows and caused damage so extensive that doctors had to abandon the hospital soon after the twister passed. A crumpled helicopter lay on its side in the parking lot near a single twisted mass of metal that used to be cars.

Map: Infrared image of the powerful tornado that spun through a densely populated part of Missouri

Dr. Jim Riscoe said some members of his emergency room staff showed up after the tornado with injuries of their own, but they worked through the night anyway.

'I spent most of my life at that hospital,' Riscoe said at a triage center at Joplin's Memorial Hall entertainment venue.

'It's awful. I had two pregnant nurses who dove under gurneys ... It's a testimony to the human spirit.'

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 on Monday, emergency vehicles were scrambling nearly every two minutes.

Tornado sirens gave residents about a 20-minute warning before the tornado touched down on the city's west side.

Staff at St John's Regional Medical Center rushed patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-storey building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility unusable.

The hospital was among the worst-hit locations.

Early on Monday, floodlights lit what remained of the building that once held as many 367 patients. Police officers could be seen combing the surrounding area for bodies.

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.

Winds from the storm carried debris up to 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 Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, stretched from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.

One person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.

Residents said 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 Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School.

Charts: This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration image released on May 23, 2011 shows the storm system moments before spawning the tornado

‘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.’

Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations.

Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency, and President Barack 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.

The storm tore the roof off his house, but he was safe. When he emerged, he found people wandering through the streets, covered in mud.

‘I'm talking to them, asking if they knew where their family is,’ Mr Lehr said. ‘Some of them didn't know and weren't sure where they were. All the street markers were gone.’

Justin Gibson, 30, huddled with three relatives outside the tangled debris 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, who was last seen in the store with his two young daughters.

Mr Gibson, who has three children of his own, said his home was levelled and ‘everything in that neighbourhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can't get hold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are.

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

In Minneapolis, where a tornado killed one person and injured 29, authorities imposed an overnight curfew in a 4-square-mile area, including some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, to prevent looting and keep streets clear for emergency crews.

Mayor RT Rybak said one liquor store was looted right after the tornado hit late Sunday and a few burglaries took place overnight.

He said it wasn't immediately clear how many homes were affected, simply saying: 'It's a lot.'

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