- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

JOPLIN, Mo. — Emergency crews drilled through concrete at a ruined Home Depot, making peepholes in the rubble in hopes of finding lost shoppers and employees. A dog clambered through the shattered remains of a house, sniffing for any sign of the woman and infant who lived there.

Across devastated Joplin, searchers move from one enormous debris pile to another, racing to respond to any report of a possible survivor.

The toll Tuesday was at least 116 dead, with perhaps as many as 17 rescued. Searchers fought the clock because anybody still alive after the deadliest single tornado in 60 years was losing precious strength two days after the disaster. And another round of storms was closing in.

For Milissa Burns, hope was fading that her 16-month-old grandson, whose parents were both hospitalized after the tornado hit their home, would be found.

On Tuesday, she showed up at a demolished dental office near the child’s home to watch a search team. At one point, a dog identified possible human remains, prompting eight searchers to dig frantically but came away with nothing. Mrs. Burns was weary but composed. Her daughter — the boy’s aunt — sobbed next to her.

“We’ve already checked out the morgue,” Mrs. Burns said. “I’ve called 911 a million times. I’ve done everything I can do. He was so light and little. He could be anywhere.”

The National Weather Service said Tuesday that the twister that crippled Joplin appeared to be a rare “multivortex” tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.

Another top job was testing the city’s tornado sirens to make sure they were operable ahead of another round of potentially violent weather starting Tuesday evening and expected to last into Wednesday in some places. Emergency officials warned jittery residents well in advance of the test.

David Imy, a meteorologist at the federal government’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said conditions were ripe for severe thunderstorms, including tornadoes, in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as nearly all of Oklahoma.

Throughout the search efforts, new reports emerged of clusters of victims: 11 people dead in a nursing home, three bodies found in an Elks Lodge.

The tornado tossed three vehicles into the Greenbriar nursing home and left nothing more than a 10-foot section of an interior wall standing. On the night of the twister, the Joplin Elks lodge had been scheduled to host its weekly bingo game.

“If that had been two hours later, there could have been 40 or 50 people in there,” said Chris Moreno, a hospital lab technician coordinating an outdoor triage center.

Jasper County Emergency Director Keith Stammer said the scope of the destruction was making it difficult to account for people affected by the storm. He suggested that many survivors, with nowhere to go, left Joplin for Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma or other parts of Missouri.

“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of inability for folks to communicate,” he said.

People in the Joplin area and beyond have turned to online social networks to find family members missing since the tornado or to learn about the plight of survivors.

Multiple Facebook pages created since the tornado are filled with requests for information about specific people who have not been heard from since Sunday. Some pages include photos of the missing. Other posts share the news about Joplin residents who are alive and well.

Confusion clouded the number of dead and survivors. A spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon said 117 bodies had been found, along with 17 survivors pulled from the rubble. The fire chief said he only knew of 116 bodies and seven survivors.

From the air, the difficulty of the search was apparent.

The tornado damage was “like taking a mower through tall grass. That’s what it looks like,” said state Sen. Ron Richard of Joplin, who flew over the area with Gov. Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill. He described the devastation as “down to the ground.”

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