A devastating tornado dropped from the sky on Sunday in southwestern Missouri around 5:30 p.m., cutting a 6-mile long and half-mile wide path through Joplin, decimating homes, businesses, churches, hospitals and anything in its path. The tornado was wrapped in rain, making it difficult to see and therefore difficult to warn others about its impending progress.
The death toll currently stands at 89 and officials are saying the number could go higher. Fire chief Mitch Randles, whose home was destroyed, estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the city was damaged, saying the tornado cut the city in half.
“You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That’s really what it looked like,” Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School, said in a USA Today story. “I couldn’t even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn’t believe what I saw.”
Interstate 44 was shut down for nearly 12 hours with as many as a dozen tractor-trailers overturned on it. Bark was ripped off trees. Vehicles were smashed. The remains of a helicopter lay in the parking lot of St. John’s Regional Medical Center – a building that was hit extremely hard. Medical records from the facility were found 60-70 miles away. Fires from gas leaks broke out across the city. And residents who survived began looking for fellow residents buried in the rubble.
Meteorologist Mike Bettes, from the Weather Channel, was one of the first to arrive on the scene and as he described what he saw to the television audience, he broke down in tears.
“Take a look, I mean it’s everything,” Bettes said on the air, pointing to rubble in every direction. “I mean, homes are destroyed and families’ lives have just been turned upside down at this point. People are just looking for their loved ones. They are looking for family members.
“If you take a look, here at this neighborhood, all I can say is it looks very reminiscent of what we saw last month in ... excuse me ... in Tuscaloosa.” He walked away from the camera, exhaled and said, “It’s tough.” A resident approached him and told him he still couldn’t find a neighbor he’d been searching for in a scene that was repeated across the city as night fell.
Bettes reported that the fire station had been hit hard and the firefighters had to pull each other out of the debris before they could begin helping residents.
Cell phone coverage was spotty, prompting some to use social media to inquire about loved ones. Jessica Lenox (@GraceKellysMom) took to Twitter, saying, “Please pray. My mom is looking for my dad.” Two hours later, she said, “Dad is safe! He is not injured but was in the middle of mass chaos. Sorry to alarm everyone but so appreciate the extra prayers!!!”
Justin Gibson, 30, told the USA Today his roommate’s brother and two little girls, ages 4 and 5, are missing. He pointed to a black pickup and said they were last seen inside it.
“We’ve been trying to get ahold of him since the tornado happened,” Gibson said, adding that his own house had been leveled.
“It’s just gone. Everything in that neighborhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can’t get a hold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are,” he said, referring to his three children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years.
“I don’t know the extent of this yet,” Gibson said, “but I know I’ll have friends and family dead.”
Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, has activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. Police officers are combing the city today, looking for survivors and the deceased. The Red Cross is pointing concerned family and friends to its website (www.redcross.org/safeandwell) where survivors can register themselves as “safe and well.”