Obama to view tornado zone in Missouri on Sunday

JOPLIN, Mo Tue May 24, 2011 8:19am EDT

JOPLIN, Mo May 24 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he will visit a devastated section of Missouri where 116 people were killed by a monster tornado, as rescue efforts resumed in the small city of Joplin.

Obama, making a statement from the U.S. ambassador's residence in London as he begins a state visit to Britain, said his message to those affected by storms in the U.S. Midwest is that the federal government stands by them. He was to visit Joplin on Sunday.

"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," he said.

Obama is on a weeklong, four-nation tour in Europe and is to return to Washington on Saturday.

"Like all Americans, we have been monitoring what's been taking place very closely and have been ... heartbroken by the images we've seen," Obama told reporters. The tornado that raked Joplin on Sunday was the deadliest single twister in the United States since 1953.[ID:nN23246952]

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said on Tuesday the official death toll remained at 116, but he expected that to rise.

Violent storms that continued through Monday "dramatically hurt" efforts to find survivors, with rain hampering sniffer dogs. Two law enforcement officials were struck by lightning, one very seriously, Nixon told CBS News.

But conditions early on Tuesday had improved and if that held, he said, by afternoon "we'll have been through every foot of this town."

"Pretty much everybody in town knows somebody they've lost," Nixon told CBS. Authorities said there were also 400 people hurt, with many suffering severe internal injuries.

He said there were 17 rescues on Monday and authorities hoped there would be more as they searched apartment complexes housing many people.

Obama spoke to Nixon on Monday and again on Tuesday.

"We've offered him not only our condolences, but we've told him that we will give him every ounce of resources the federal government may have that we can bring to bear on this situation," Obama told reporters.

'ASSURANCE AND COMFORT'

Obama said he will talk to families affected by the storm when he visits the region and hopefully "pray with folks and give them whatever assurance and comfort I can that the entire country is going to be behind them."

He urged Americans in storm zones to heed warnings to seek safety during a deadly spring in which storms across Southern states last month killed more than 300 people and caused more than $2 billion in property damage.

Survivors in Joplin told harrowing stories of seeking shelter from winds of nearly 200 miles per hour (322 kph) in walk-in coolers in restaurants and convenience stores, hiding in bathtubs and closets, and of running for their lives as the tornado neared.

"We were getting hit by rocks, and I don't even know what hit me," said Leslie Swatosh, 22, who huddled on the floor of a liquor store with several others clutching one another as they prayed. When the tornado passed, the store was destroyed but those inside were all alive.

"Everyone in that store was blessed. There was nothing of that store left," she said.

More severe storms were predicted for the region, in a year that has brought tornadoes of record intensity across several states. Further complicating the rescue effort, power lines were downed, broken gas lines ignited fires, and cell phone communications were spotty due to 17 toppled phone towers.

A number of bodies were found along the city's "restaurant row," on the main commercial street, and a local nursing home took a direct hit, said Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges.

Roaring along a path nearly six miles (9.5 km) long and about 1/2 mile to 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, the tornado flattened whole neighborhoods, splintered trees and flipped over cars and trucks. Some 2,000 homes and many other businesses, schools and other buildings were destroyed.

At St. John's hospital 180 patients cowered as the fierce winds blew out windows and pulled off the roof. According to AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Alan Reppert, X-ray films from the hospital were found 70 miles (112 km) away.

Six of the confirmed fatalities occurred at the hospital said spokeswoman Joanne Cox. Five were intensive-care patients who were on ventilators that lost power when the tornado struck, Cox said. The sixth was a visitor, but the circumstances of that death were unclear.

The city's residents were given about 20 minutes' notice when 25 warning sirens sounded Sunday evening, said Jasper County Emergency Management Director Keith Stammers.

An estimated 20,000 homes and businesses were without power in Joplin.

The Joplin tornado was the latest in a string of powerful twisters that has wreaked death and devastation across numerous states, and it comes as much of the Mississippi River Valley is under water from massive flooding.

The death toll of at least 116 topped the 115 people who perished in a 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan. A 1947 tornado in Woodland, Oklahoma, killed 181 people.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Carey Gillam; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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