Obama to attend tornado memorial

2011-05-29 21:45

Joplin - US President Barack Obama joins grieving relatives in Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday at a memorial service for victims of one of the worst tornadoes ever to hit the United States.

The death toll stood at 142 one week after the tornado cut a path of death and destruction through the heart of this town of 50 000. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said Sunday that 44 people remain missing.

Obama, the governor and local residents planned to gather on the campus of Missouri Southern State University for the memorial service. Later on Sunday, a moment of silence will be observed.

"We're going to rebuild Joplin. We're going to focus on rebuilding our souls today and begin the process of rebuilding Joplin when the memorial service is over," Nixon told CNN's State of the Union show on Sunday.

Obama, who one month ago visited tornado damage in Alabama, will see for himself the "unimaginable" destruction in Joplin, the governor said.

"Folks are beyond homeless here. Their homes don't exist," he told CNN. "You can't tell neighbourhood to neighbourhood whether a house was a brick house or a wooden house. The level of destruction - there's no bark on the trees."

On Saturday, the family of Will Norton held a press conference to thank the volunteers who searched for the 18-year-old, who was sucked by the wind out of his father's Hummer SUV as they drove home from his high school graduation.

Search teams discovered his body in a pond close to where the Hummer was driving when the tornado struck last Sunday, his family said.

A Facebook page set up to organize search efforts for Norton has garnered mass outpourings of support.

Forensics very challenging

Crews continued searching for the missing, seven days after the tornado tore apart everything it touched along a path six kilometers long.

The governor said officials are working "24 hours a day" to locate the missing and identify the deceased.

He said that the battered condition of some of the bodies means that DNA tests have been needed to identify the remains.

"The forensics work, scientific work here is very challenging," he said in an interview from Joplin.

Jasper County Coroner Ron Chappel pleaded for understanding from families angry that they were not being allowed to search for their missing loved ones among the dead at a temporary morgue.

He said victims' appearances are often altered in disasters like the one that struck Joplin, and that the coroner's office has had to move carefully to avoid misidentifying the dead.

But his office invited the public to provide photos of missing loved ones and information about scars, tattoos, piercings and other identifying marks.

"We are focused on the loss of the families and I want them to know that. It’s a traumatic process for us, for them, for all involved," Chappel said.

Trash is running

State officials are cross-checking names of the missing with hospitals, and are working with cell phone service providers to determine if anyone has used their phone since being added to the list.

The twister, a massive funnel cloud that struck late Sunday, ranks as the single deadliest tornado to hit the United States since modern record-keeping began in 1950.

More than 8 000 structures in the Midwestern town, including a major commercial area, were damaged or destroyed when the tornado packing winds over 320km/h came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.

Joplin spokesperson Lynn Onstot said the city was slowly getting back on its feet, although the traditional Memorial Day weekend opening of Joplin's public pools has been postponed.

"Public transportation is back up and running, and trash is running as normal as possible," although not in the disaster areas, she added.

A total of 318 people are living in temporary shelters in Joplin, state officials said on Saturday.

One of the shelters is located at Missouri Southern State University, which hosts the memorial service on Sunday. The university was not damaged by the tornado, Onstot said.