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Joplin Twister: The Deadliest Storm in Half-Century

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By HVnews on May 23, 2011

The Year of Extreme Weather continues unabated: A series of deadly tornadoes ripped through the Midwest on Sunday, causing extensive damage to towns and cities from Missouri to Minnesota.

Joplin, Missouri — a city of about 50,000 nearly 160 miles from Kansas City — bore the brunt of the twister. The six-mile-long, mile-wide tornado cut directly through Joplin, leaving 124 dead and more than 1,000 injured. The death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue teams continue to operate.

Kathy Dennis of the American Red Cross said initially, “75% of the town is virtually gone.” Now, in the light of day, that figure seems like a slight embellishment: Joplin’s Fire Chief Mitch Randles estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the city was damaged, including his own home.

“Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said an estimated 2,000 buildings were damaged,” according to the Huffington Post.

The tornado not only leveled churches and schools, businesses and homes, but it took out one of the two hospitals in the area as well. AccuWeather reports that “X-Ray films were also reported from St. John’s Hospital in Joplin, Missouri, nearly 70 miles away in someone’s driveway. The hospital is also reporting chunks of the building being completely destroyed.”

An early warning system may have saved more lives: Joplin had about 20 minutes warning before the tornado struck, according to Randles. That’s more time than usual — residents will ordinarily hear a warning siren seven to 10 minutes before a tornado hits, Randles said during a news conference.

President Obama is expected to tour the ravaged city when he returns from his European tour on Sunday, reports Reuters.

“All we can do is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them and that we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure that they recover,” President Obama said. “Like all Americans, we have been monitoring what’s been taking place very closely and have been … heartbroken by the images we’ve seen.”

Take a tour of the devastation in this video from the Weather Channel:

According to AccuWeather, “These storms are part of a larger system that triggered severe weather that killed one person in Kansas on Saturday night and caused damage from Minnesota to Texas on Sunday. At least one person was killed and 29 injured in storms that hit Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

Wow, the video is a bit hard to see due to how dark it is, but the audio, which kicks in around 2:15, is scary enough: “The video i took while at Fastrip on east 20th street. We huddled in the back of the store until the glass got sucked out , then ran into the walk in storage fridge. Sorry for the lack of visuals but the audio is pretty telling of how intense the storm was. The tornado hits at around 1:20 seconds.”

On Day two of the storm’s aftermath, the weather has finally died down making search and rescue missions viable. Authorities expect every foot of the destroyed region to be combed over by the day’s end. Here are a few things that caught out eye.

Less than an hour before the tornado carved up the town, Joplin High School had their graduation ceremony for seniors.

18-year-old Kasey Grant had stood before her classmates and exhorted them to cherish their memories and be thankful.

“Be excited,” Grant said in her speech. “The ride of your life is set to begin.”

But just minutes after the 455 newly minted graduates of Joplin High walked across the stage Sunday afternoon at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, the tornado sirens began to scream. The destruction that followed would leave the graduates and their families shaken, if not worse, and may come to define the passage of this class to adulthood.

“It’s kind of hard to know what to feel,” said Grant, an 18-year-old who was invited to speak because she was among Joplin High’s top seniors. “Graduation is supposed to be a happy day, but it all quickly turned into this day full of devastation.”

Aaron DuRall has some mighty impressive photos on his Flikr account of the tornado’s aftermath. He writes, “I don’t care about adding the shooting info. I feel gutted right now. It was my 50mm, I’ll at least post that.”

Here are a few that caught out attention.

Just devastating.

Finally, the New York Times brings us the story of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, which was destroyed by the tornado. It sounds like it was a horrific ordeal for both medical professionals and the patients.

By the time the three-quarter-mile-wide tornado — among the deadliest in the nation’s history — moved on, the hospital was a scene of stunned chaos. Nearly every patient was splashed or covered with blood from all the glass, and people in the emergency room on the first floor were sucked out of windows into the parking lot. Even a backup generator failed, leaving ventilators and other medical equipment without power in dark rooms.

One panicked nurse, who had been in the intensive care unit, pleaded for help when machines stopped pumping air into the lungs of critically ill patients. “I’ve got patients dying up there!” Robert Kuhn, a hospital worker, recalled the nurse calling out. The doctors told him to go back and pump the air manually.

“You were on your own,” Mr. Kuhn explained.

We’ll add more as it develops …

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