Emergency crews searched through the night and thru a thunderstorm with driving rain on Monday for additional survivors.
“We still believe there are folks alive under the rubble, and we’re trying hard to reach them,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told reporters in Joplin, Missouri.
Elsewhere across the country, at least 30 homes were damaged or destroyed in a storm that swept through Tennessee on Monday evening, Stewart County Emergency Management Director Clint Mathis told WSMV-TV. The post office and fire station in the town of Big Rock were also destroyed, Mathis said.
In Pennsylvania, a massive storm and possible tornado caused extensive damage to barns and homes in the Richfield and McAllisterville areas, CBS21 News reported. They sent out search dogs to help look for people unaccounted for.
In Joplin, the death toll had been at 90 on Monday morning, but by afternoon officials told reporters it had risen to 116 — making it America’s deadliest single tornado in sixty four years and the 2nd major tornado disaster in one month.
By evening, search and rescue workers had found 17 victims alive, but their task was made more miserable by a new thunderstorm Monday morning that pelted part of the city with quarter-sized hail.
Nixon told The AP he did not want to guess how high the death toll would eventually climb. But he said… “Clearly, it’s on its way up.”
Seventeen people were pulled alive from the rubble. An unknown number of people were hurt and many more still need to be found.
Fire chief Mitch Randles estimated that 25 to 30% of the city was damaged, and said his own home was among the buildings destroyed as the twister swept through this city of about 50k people, some 160 miles south of Kansas City.
“It cut the city in half,” Randles said of the twister, which was 3/4s of a mile wide at times and kicked debris 20k feet up into the sky.
Nixon told MSNBC TV that some 2,000 structures saw “significant damage,” and that searching for survivors remains a priority.
There’s still a “significant potential for saving lives,” Nixon said.
More than 1,150 people were treated at local hospitals. An estimated 20,000 homes and businesses were without power.
A number of bodies were found along the city’s “restaurant row,” on the main commercial street, Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges said.
“The loss of life is incredible,” said Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston. “We’re still trying to find people. The outlook is pretty bleak. We’re still hoping though.”
The city’s residents were given about 20 minutes notice when 25 warning sirens sounded around 6 p.m. local time, said Jasper County Emergency Management Director Keith Stammers.
But the governor said many people likely were unable to get to shelter in time. “The bottom line was the storm was so loud you probably couldn’t hear the sirens going off.”
Staff at St. John’s Regional Medical Center hustled patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.
At least 6 people at the hospital were killed, including 5 patients and 1 visitor, officials said. Dr. Jim Riscoe said he arrived at the hospital soon after the tornado hit and said some colleagues who also were injured worked all through out the night.
On Monday, officers from the city and neighboring towns and counties manned virtually every major intersection. Ambulances came and went, sirens blaring. Rescuers involved in a door-to-door search moved gingerly around downed power lines and jagged debris.
A series of gas leaks caused fires around the city overnight, and Nixon said some were still burning early Monday morning.
The twister was one of sixty eight reported across 7 Midwest states over the weekend. One person was killed in Minneapolis, Minn. and another in Reading, Kan. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst of the day, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South over several days, last month.