JOPLIN, Missouri – Rescuers combed through overturned cars and flattened buildings Tuesday hunting for survivors after this Missouri town was struck by one of the strongest US tornadoes ever recorded.
A massive mile-wide funnel-cloud, with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour, tore through the town of Joplin with devastating force late Sunday, leaving 122 people dead and hundreds more missing.
Tornadoes were meanwhile Tuesday striking neighboring Oklahoma, with television footage showing multiple massive twisters touching down in rural areas near the state capital Oklahoma City.
“This is a very dangerous time right now,” Governor Mary Fallin told CNN, as she urged Oklahomans to immediately take shelter from “several… huge tornadoes on the ground.”
Joplin city manager Mark Rohr said earlier that there was an increasing sense of urgency, as rescuers scoured the town’s rubble and debris in hopes of finding more survivors.
“People’s lives are at stake,” Rohr told a press conference.
“We are still in search and rescue mode, and will be for the foreseeable future,” he said, almost two full days since the disaster flattened much of this town of some 50,000 people.
Officials said the tornado ranks as the 8th deadliest in American history, and the deadliest single twister to strike the United States since modern records began in 1950 — rising above the toll in a tornado in Flint, Michigan in 1953 that left 116 people 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.
Sunday’s massive twister cut a swath of destruction four miles (6.4 kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (more than a kilometer) wide.
Brandon Hicks, 26, was lucky enough to be on an out-of-town fishing trip when the twister struck, but came home to discover that his house, as well as one across the street belonging to his brother, was completely destroyed.
“We’re trying to get everything salvaged, before the next storm hits,” Hicks said as he sorted through the ruins of his possessions.
Forecasters warned more potent storms could be on the way, perhaps as early as Tuesday.
Not far away, Lauren Miller, 23, wiped away tears as she sorted through family photos picked from the wreckage of her grandmother’s home.
Miller’s grandmother, who took shelter in the cellar with a neighbor as the house collapsed on top of them, survived.
But her other grandmother, who had been out for dinner Sunday evening to celebrate the high school graduation of a family friend, did not.
“It’s not easy,” Miller told AFP.
“I don’t think the worst has come yet. This is all adrenaline and coping,” she said.
Some news reports said as many as 1,500 people were still unaccounted for, although there was hope that some might have found their way to homes of friends and relatives outside the immediate area.
On a hopeful note, 17 people were reported to have been pulled alive Monday from under the debris and rubble following the tornado, but only two emerged alive on Tuesday.
Desperate residents meanwhile phoned local radio stations seeking information about missing loved ones.
The town’s Facebook page has become an online kiosk for news about which nearby restaurants are offering free meals and where to find emergency shelter.
Residents were vowing to pull together in the aftermath of the calamity, saying they will eventually rebuild Joplin.
But the first order of business, they said, is to search for anyone trapped in the rubble and wreckage who might still be alive.
Churches and shelters lent their efforts to the rescue, sending legions of volunteers — assistance city officials said they were grateful for.
Joplin “has had a wonderful outpouring of support from volunteers coming into our community to affect that search and rescue,” Rohr said Tuesday.
Responders have encountered trying conditions, including heavy rain, and rescue operations had to be suspended on Monday after two men were struck by lightning, one of whom was seriously injured.
US President Barack Obama plans to tour the disaster scene on Sunday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families that are suffering at the moment,” said Obama, who is on a four-nation European tour.
“All we can do is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them, and we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure they can recover,” he added.