5 Min Read
(Updates more death stories; damages estimate, forecast for more tornadoes)
By Kevin Murphy
JOPLIN, Mo., May 24 (Reuters) - First they found his dark blue teddy bear. Then frantic relatives searching for toddler Skyular Logsdon spotted his red T-shirt and pants, torn, rain-soaked and wrapped around a telephone pole.
The little boy hasn't been seen since Sunday night when a massive tornado ripped through the center of Joplin, Missouri, killing at least 118 people and leaving many more missing.
As search teams took advantage of a break in the bad weather on Tuesday to look for survivors under mountains of wreckage, Skyular's relatives carefully lifted up the wooden beams and twisted metal of what was once his home.
They prayed for signs of life from the boy, who was about 15 months old. His injured parents have been hospitalized.
"We have searched every morgue, every hospital, every place we can think of," said Rusty Burton, a step-grandfather to Skyular. "I looked at every piece of this house I could."
The discovery of the young boy's clothes on the telephone pole nearly 200 yards/180 metres away was gut-wrenching.
"It's all torn up. I don't want him to have been wearing this," said relative Pamela Tate, sobbing as she gripped the wet, tiny clothes. "All I want is for him to be alive. That is all I want."
The search for Skyular is but one of the many sorrow-filled hunts for loved ones in this southwestern Missouri city of 50,000, where about 1,500 people remained missing.
Authorities said they were racing against forecasts for more bad weather as well as grim survival odds for anyone still trapped after the tornado ripped through, uprooting trees. destroying buildings and twisting cars into heaps of metal.
State emergency officials said the death toll was 118.
"We're hopeful that we'll still be finding people," said Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles, who said there were several reports of cries coming from beneath collapsed buildings.
"We want to make every opportunity we can to find everybody that is still in the rubble and has survived to this point."
Authorities said the missing could include many who simply have not yet been able to let relatives know where they are.
For Kenny McKeel, the search for his lost family is over. Only hours after the tornado hit, McKeel found his father's body and that of his stepmother laid out on the lawn, their home collapsed around them. The neighbors - a couple and three children - also died, he said.
On Tuesday he pulled his father's cane from the debris and tried to hold back tears.
"I see this stuff. It means a lot to me," said McKeel. "And it kills me."
The tornado that raked Joplin was the deadliest single twister in the United States since 1947, when a tornado in Woodland, Oklahoma, killed 181 people. [ID:nN23246952]
When it struck around dinner time Sunday night, the funnel cloud cut a path nearly six miles (9.5 km) long and up to 3/4 mile (1 km) wide. Some 2,000 houses and many other businesses, schools and other buildings were destroyed.
"Pretty much everybody in town knows somebody they've lost," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said on Tuesday.
It was the latest in a string of powerful storms this spring that have killed more than 300 people and caused more than $2 billion in property damage across the United States.
Joplin's tornado likely caused insured losses between $1 billion and $3 billion, according to catastrophe risk modeling firm EQECAT. [ID:nN24239867]
U.S. President Barack Obama plans a visit to the southwestern Missouri city on Sunday, a day after he returns from a weeklong, four-nation tour in Europe. [ID:nLDE74N10R]
Search efforts have been complicated by bad weather, and two law enforcement officials were struck by lightning on Monday. One remained hospitalized in critical condition.
More storms were headed toward the region. AccuWeather.com meteorologists forecast a significant tornado outbreak Tuesday night that could spawn 50 or more tornado reports from Oklahoma City to Kansas and possibly Joplin.
Only a handful of survivors have been found. State officials said their tally was 17 people rescued on Monday, although local officials confirmed only seven.
Six people died at St. John's hospital, where the tornado blew out windows and pulled off the roof. On Tuesday, the hospital was vacant, with two large tented areas set up outside - one to treat the injured and the other a temporary morgue.
Bodies were found throughout the city, in apartments, homes, stores, a church. Downed phone lines and cell towers, electrical outages and broken gas lines made moving through the mass wreckage dangerous as well as slow. The ruin stretched as far as the eye could see.
"This has been totally devastating," said Rich Serino, deputy administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This is certainly among the worst that I have ever seen." (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Carey Gillam; Writing by Carey Gillam; Editing by Doina Chiacu)