US tornado death toll hits 89

2011-05-23 13:14

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Chicago - A massive tornado has cut a deadly swath through a Missouri town, turning homes into rubble, destroying a school, ripping apart a hospital and reportedly killing about 89 people.

The tornado struck the town of Joplin near the border with Oklahoma and Kansas on Sunday evening, less than a month after a horrific tornado outbreak left 354 dead across seven US states.

It was the deadliest of 46 tornadoes reported to the National Weather Service in seven states on Sunday.

"It's a war zone," Scott Meeker of the Joplin Globe newspaper told AFP.

"We've got hundreds of wounded being treated at Memorial Hall (hospital), but they were quickly overwhelmed and ran out of supplies, so they've opened up a local school as a triage centre," Meeker said.

Medical chopper slams into ground

People clawed through the rubble looking for friends, family and neighbours after the storm tore buildings apart and turned cars into crumpled heaps of metal.

Flames and thick black smoke poured out of the wreckage of shattered homes, and water gushed out of broken pipes as shocked survivors surveyed the damage, early photos showed.

A tangled medical helicopter lay in the rubble outside St John Regional Medical Centre, which took a direct hit.

Jeff Law, 23, was able to take shelter in a storm cellar and was overwhelmed by what he saw when he emerged.

"I've lived in this neighbourhood my entire life, and I didn't know where I was," Law told the Springfield News-Leader. "Everything was unrecognisable, completely unrecognisable. It's like Armageddon."

"It's so devastating we can't even grasp it at this point," Rob Chappel of the Jasper County coroner's office told AFP.

"We're still trying to rescue victims that are still trapped. With it being so dark and no electricity, everyone has underestimated how much is just gone."

More storms coming

Chappel said authorities probably won't know the exact death toll before late Monday at the earliest.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard troops in response to what he described as "significant destruction in multiple areas, including Joplin, where a tornado struck St John's Regional Medical Centre".

The badly damaged medical centre was evacuated on Sunday, and Nixon warned that the storms are not over.

"These storms have caused extensive damage across Missouri, and they continue to pose significant risk to lives and property," Nixon said in a statement late on Sunday.

"As a state, we are deploying every agency and resource available to keep Missouri families safe, search for the missing, provide emergency medical care, and begin to recover," he added.

President Barack Obama sent his "deepest condolences" to victims and said the federal government stood ready to help Americans as needed.

No place to call home

On Saturday, a deadly tornado pummelled the east Kansas town of Reading, killing a man and damaging an estimated 80% of Reading's structures, mostly wood-frame buildings.

According to witnesses, it crushed a grain elevator, tore the top off the red brick post office, blew the back off the local fire department building, tore houses off foundations and uprooted trees.

"We have nothing, no place to call home. It's hard," Jill Scales, a Reading resident, told reporters. "We're just still in shock. We don't know where to go from here. What do you do?"

A tornado was also responsible for the death of one person in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday, authorities said. At least 30 others in that city and its suburbs were injured.

Two of those injured were in critical condition, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, who surveyed the affected area from a helicopter, described the damage as "widespread and significant".
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