JOPLIN, Missouri (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Sunday called last week’s tornado that claimed scores of lives here “a national tragedy,” ahead of a memorial service for the dead.
“This is not just your tragedy. It is a national tragedy and there will be a national response,” Obama said in Joplin, Missouri.
The massive tornado, which killed 142 people in this town of 50,000, was one of the worst ever in the United States. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said Sunday that 44 people remain missing.
“We’re going to be here long after the cameras are gone,” Obama said. “We’re not going to stop until Joplin jumps back on its feet.”
The president’s motorcade drove through some of the hardest-hit areas, stopping along with Nixon to talk to residents, many of whose homes were destroyed by the 200 miles per hour (300 kilometer per hour) winds.
Obama, the governor and local residents gathered on the campus of Missouri Southern State University for the memorial service. Later Sunday, a moment of silence will be observed.
“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 Sunday.
Obama was to meet while in Missouri with the state’s congressional leaders, as well as with Craig Fugate, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US office disaster response office.
The US leader, who just one month ago toured tornado damage in Alabama, got a firsthand look at the destruction in Joplin.
“When we were in Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago, I talked about how I hadn’t seen devastation like that in my lifetime,” Obama said before the memorial service.
“When you come here to Joplin, and it is just as heartbreaking, and in some ways more devastating,” he added. “Obviously, it is going to take years to build back.”
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.
Crews continued searching for the missing, seven days after the tornado tore apart everything it touched along a path four miles (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.
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 last 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 200 miles (320 kilometers) per hour came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.
Joplin spokeswoman 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 Saturday.
One of the shelters is located at Missouri Southern State University, which hosts the memorial service Sunday. The university was not damaged by the tornado, Onstot said.