JOPLIN, Missouri – Rescue teams and anguished families Wednesday were desperately trying to track down some 1,500 people listed as missing since a tornado ripped through a Missouri town, killing 125 residents.
Emergency teams were also doing a fourth painstaking sweep through the devastated homes of Joplin, buoyed after two survivors were found alive Tuesday after almost 48 hours trapped in the wreckage.
But traumatized residents, hundreds of whom are now living in special shelters, were rattled late Tuesday after new storms roared across the neighboring state of Oklahoma, leaving at least eight dead.
In what is one of the worst tornado seasons on record after a series of twisters killed hundreds in southern US states last month, Sunday’s twister in Joplin, population 50,000, is now the worst single tornado to strike America in six decades.
“It is a devastating scene. I have seen a lot of tornado damage in the past, but never such a wide path, such a large path,” said Missouri public safety communications chief Mike O’Connell.
The main task now was to try to locate people listed by desperate relatives as missing since Sunday’s tornado flattened everything along a path four miles (six kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (over a kilometer) wide.
“This is our priority,” O’Connell told AFP, stressing not all the missing were feared dead.
“These are people whose whereabouts are not immediately known,” he said, adding some of them could be among the 750 people being treated in hospital.
“Afterwards, you couldn’t email, you couldn’t get on your cell phones. Many people left the area… we will be carefully going through to see if there are any duplications.”
Heartbreaking stories were being replayed hourly on the local radio, and on social networking sites as people searched for their loved ones, including panicked parents separated from their children.
The family of 16-month-old Skyular Logsdon have launched an anxious search using the social network Facebook for the baby boy ripped from his mother’s arms by the powerful winds.
“No, he has not been found,” his grandmother, Milissa Burns, posted sadly on the site early Wednesday. “I’m following all leads both good and bad… I just pray we all can work together on this. God bless.”
Teenager Lantz Hare is also missing since being out driving with friends when the massive funnel cloud, with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour, hit Joplin with devastating force.
“He was on the phone with another friend, we believe, when the tornado actually hit the car. His friend Ryan says he could literally hear the swoosh came through and the phone went dead,” his mother Michelle told CNN.
The American Red Cross has set up a website for people to list the names of the missing, and to report if they are safe and sound but they have had little success reuniting families.
“It’s been very difficult. We’d like to see a much greater number of families reunited,” said Bill Benson, who is handling the Red Cross’s social media and online outreach.
“We have a constant influx of folks coming in desperate asking can you help me — we just don’t know where to go.”
Assistant shelter manager Amanda Marshall is among them — her four-year-old niece and the girl’s grandparents were nowhere to be found when her brother discovered the bodies of his wife and other daughter.
“I keep checking my cell phone — I’m waiting for a text saying she’s OK,” Marshall told AFP.
Further complicating matters is the fact that officials have not released the names of the dead.
More than 8,000 structures in this town bordering the heartland states of Kansas and Oklahoma were damaged or destroyed when the twister came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.
In yet another tragedy, more twisters hit Oklahoma late Tuesday. “We’ve got pretty extensive damage across the state,” Jerry Smith, emergency management director for Canadian County, told AFP.
Hopes were fading Wednesday in Joplin after 17 people were pulled alive Monday from the rubble, but only two survivors were found Tuesday.
Officials were limiting access to the affected area so the rescue operations wouldn’t be disturbed by curious onlookers and imposed an evening curfew to prevent looting.
US President Barack Obama, on a visit to London, again sent his condolences to the people of Missouri, ahead of a visit to the area on Sunday.
“We have been battered by some storms. Not just this week but over the last several months. The largest death toll and devastation we have ever seen from tornadoes in the United States of America.”
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