JOPLIN, Missouri (AFP) – The death toll from one of the worst tornadoes ever to hit the United States has risen to 132 as crews continued to search the rubble for survivors and victims.
Five days after the massive tornado cut a miles-long (kilometers-long) path of destruction through this town of 50,000, officials have managed to pare down the list of the missing to 156 from 232.
But for those families who are still waiting for news, the wait has been agonizing and many have mounted their own searches.
Teenager Will Norton was sucked from his father’s Hummer as they drove home from his high school graduation.
Dozens of people have been helping his family search the debris field — even heading out in a small plane to scan areas farther afield — but they have had no luck.
“We are still looking. We have not found Will but we are still looking,” his aunt Tracey Presslor posted Friday evening on a Facebook page set up to organize search efforts that has garnered mass outpourings of support.
“Keep the faith. He’s out there somewhere. God bless everyone. We feel the love and we send it,” she wrote.
Friday’s steep decline in the number of missing persons came after the Missouri Department of Public Safety published a list of 232 persons unaccounted for and discovered that 90 people on the list were in fact alive, spokesman Seth Bundy said.
Bundy said an additional six people on the list were determined to have died, two were duplicate names, and an additional 22 missing persons reports were filed, bringing the official number of missing to 156.
Officials said many of the missing were likely to be among the dead, but a full accounting is impossible until next of kin are notified.
“Are there individuals who are on the missing list and in fact deceased and in the morgue? Yes,” said Bundy. “How many, I won’t speculate.”
Bundy said so far 19 among the 132 bodies recovered have been positively identified and their next of kin notified, and that the state was working as fast as it could.
“We have people working 24 hours around the clock to do the DNA, investigate the missing persons, talk with the families. It’s all hands on deck 24/7,” he said.
Still the process is an agonizingly slow one for families of the victims because they have not been allowed into the Joplin morgue to make identifications.
Officials have said visual identification isn’t sufficiently accurate. But there could be a grimmer reason — half of the bodies are reportedly too badly damaged to be identifiable.
Sharyn Dawson has been searching for her 74-year-old mother-in-law, Patricia Dawson, whose apartment building was completely destroyed Sunday.
She said she can sympathize with the difficulty officials have had in confirming the identities of the victims, but said it has left her with little choice but to keep looking until there is news.
“I don’t want to jump on that bandwagon of people who have been screaming and yelling about how this process has worked. They don’t understand how the process works. Neither do I,” Dawson said.
“But I am almost to that place where I really want to know if she’s in the morgue so I can quit wondering what happened.”
The twister, a massive mile-wide funnel cloud, ranks as the single deadliest tornado to hit the United States since modern record-keeping began in 1950. It tore apart everything it touched along a path four miles (six kilometers) long.
More than 8,000 structures in the Midwestern town were damaged or destroyed when the twister packing winds over 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has ordered the state’s national guard to remove the wasteland of debris left by the tornado, a mission he described as an “enormous task” but crucial for the city’s recovery.
Meanwhile, Police Chief Lane Roberts said the city had made 17 arrests for looting.
“Anybody coming into this area determined to take what is left of these people’s lives, we will be equally determined to deprive them of their freedom.”
US President Barack Obama will attend a community memorial service on Sunday, and Nixon said Friday: “We know his words will bring hope and healing.”