Powerful tornadoes kill at least 31 in U.S. Midwest

Mon May 23, 2011 2:02am EDT

Related Topics

* Death toll estimates may top 100, says Missouri coroner

* Missouri governor declares state of emergency

* Major damage to hospital, Main Street in Joplin

* President Obama expresses condolences

By Kevin Murphy and Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, May 23 (Reuters) - Tornadoes tore through parts of the U.S. Midwest on Sunday, killing at least 30 people in the Missouri town of Joplin, claiming another life in Minneapolis and causing extensive property damage in the region.

The Joplin deaths came from a powerful twister that struck the southwestern Missouri town of some 50,000 people late on Sunday afternoon, wrecking a hospital and leaving some neighborhoods in ruins.

"At this point we know we are up into the 30 range," Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges told Reuters by telephone when asked about the death toll.

"We have heard up into the over-100 (range), but ... I don't think anyone has a good count right now," he said of the casualties. He said 11 bodies were pulled from just one site.

Bridges said a mobile morgue had been set up at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

Emergency crews labored through the night combing through mounds of rubble and debris searching for survivors and bodies under bright floodlights.

The storms continued to build on violent weather this spring in the United States that claimed more than 330 lives last month as tornadoes swept seven states. That total included 238 deaths in Alabama alone on April 27, when twisters battered the university town of Tuscaloosa and other cities.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and announced he was ordering National Guard troops be deployed to help state troopers and other agencies respond to storms that he said "have caused extensive damage across Missouri."

President Barack Obama issued a statement expressing his "deepest condolences" to families of the victims. He said he had directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support response and recovery efforts.

Whole neighborhoods in Joplin were badly damaged, according to authorities and witnesses.

One local hospital, St. John's Regional Medical Center, was hit hard by the twister, and several patients were hurt as it ripped through the building, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for a sister facility in Springfield, Missouri, to the east.

"It is extensive damage," Scott said. "The roof is gone. A lot of the windows are blown out.

BUILDINGS LEVELED

Denise Bayless, 57, who lives north of Joplin, told Reuters by telephone that many buildings on Main Street were leveled and the town's only high school was burning.

She and her husband were at church when their adult son called to say the tornado was hitting his house, and the couple got in their car to drive to his aid.

"We just had to weave in and out of debris. Power lines were down everywhere, and you could smell gas," she said.

Carla Tabares and her husband Tony were in the Outback Steakhouse in Joplin when the tornado hit. They had just run through raindrops into the restaurant and sat down to order when a waitress told them a tornado was headed their way.

"It was really awful, really scary," said Tabares.

She and her husband squeezed into the restaurant's cooler with several families and children in the dark, hearing the howling of the winds outside. When they emerged, their building was largely unscathed but several other nearby restaurants and businesses had been heavily damaged.

"I'm just thankful we got out alive and I really feel sorry for the people who didn't," Tabares said.

Another tornado ripped through the north end of Minneapolis and some suburbs on Sunday, tearing roofs off dozens of homes and garages, killing one person and injuring at least 30 others, authorities said.

That twister struck Sunday afternoon and plowed across a 3-to-5-mile (5-to-8-km) area, Assistant City Fire Chief Cherie Penn told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Storms knocked out electricity to about 22,000 homes and businesses in the area, but power was restored to several thousand customers within hours, according to Xcel Energy Inc spokeswoman Mary Sandok.

Tornadoes overnight on Saturday in northeast Kansas killed one person and damaged some 200 structures. A state of emergency was declared for 16 counties, state officials said. (Additional reporting by David Bailey and Colleen Jenkins; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton, Peter Bohan and Eric Walsh)

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