- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Crews busted holes in concrete slabs and sifted through strewn home goods Tuesday as rescuers focused on crumpled big-box stores and apartment complexes in Joplin in a frantic search for survivors, after nearly 120 people were killed by the deadliest single U.S. tornado in about 60 years.

One team poked through the remains of a Home Depot store, while others searched a Walmart and wrecked apartments as the clock ticked down on another round of severe storms. A hunt through the rubble using search-and-rescue dogs was planned, and officials expected to test the city’s nine warning sirens while the sun was still shining.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., warned of severe weather starting Tuesday afternoon in a band from northern Texas up to southern Illinois and stretching east into western Kentucky, western Tennessee and northwest Mississippi. Meteorologist David Imy said conditions were ripe for tornadoes in central and eastern Kansas, almost all of Oklahoma and northern portions of Texas.

“It looks like prime time for the greatest tornado coverage and intensity will be between 3 to 4 p.m. and 9 to 10 p.m.,” Mr. Imy said. “That will be when the greatest coverage and most intense storms occur.”

Thunderstorms are forecast in Joplin from 6 p.m. to midnight, and there’s a possibility of tornadoes, he said.

The massive tornado that ripped through the heart of the blue-collar southwest Missouri city of 50,000 people on Sunday was the deadliest on record in nearly six decades.

Sam Murphey, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, said Tuesday that 117 bodies had been found, but he didn’t know when or where the latest one was discovered. Fire Chief Mitch Randles said he knew of only 116 bodies.

Mr. Nixon has said 17 survivors have been found, but Chief Randles said he knew of only seven.

“We’re getting sporadic calls of cries for help from rubble piles … most of those are turning out to be false,” Chief Randles said.

Rescuers found one person alive at the Home Depot on Monday, but they also discovered seven bodies under a concrete slab, officials said. Search-and-rescue team leader Doug Westhoff said team members have searched as much of the store’s interior as they can and now are focused on what is under collapsed concrete slabs that once helped hold up the store. After the holes are drilled, dogs will be brought in to try to detect any human scent.

Chief Randles said teams were taking advantage of the best weather they had had in two days to go through every damaged and destroyed building. After seven survivors were pulled from rubble Monday, he and others said they hoped to find more.

“It’s really incredible the fact that we’re still finding people,” Chief Randles said.

Mr. Westhoff also expressed hope, but said the outlook at the Home Depot was bleak because of the size of the slabs and magnitude of the collapse.

Until this week, the deadliest single tornado on record with the National Weather Service in the past six decades was a twister that killed 116 people in Flint, Mich., in 1953.

More deaths have resulted from outbreaks of multiple tornadoes. On April 27, a pack of twisters roared across six Southern states, killing 314 people, more than two-thirds of them in Alabama. That was the single deadliest day for tornadoes since the National Weather Service began keeping such records in 1950.

The agency has conducted research that shows deadlier outbreaks before 1950. It says the single deadliest day that it is aware of was March 18, 1925, when tornadoes killed 747 people. The day also saw what weather officials believe was the single deadliest tornado, when one twister ripped through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 695 people. The most deaths from the tri-state tornado, which started near Gang, Mo., and ended near Princeton, Ind., were in Murphysboro, Ill., where the tornado hit an elementary school in session.

Sunday’s tornado slammed straight into St. John’s Regional Medical Center, in one of the hardest-hit areas of Joplin. The hospital confirmed that five of the dead were patients — all of them in critical condition before the tornado hit. A hospital visitor also was killed.

The tornado destroyed possibly “thousands” of homes, Chief Randles told the Associated Press. It leveled hundreds of businesses, including massive ones such as the Home Depot and Walmart.

President Obama said he would travel to Missouri on Sunday to meet with people whose lives have been turned upside down by the twister. He vowed to make all federal resources available for efforts to recover and rebuild.

“The American people are by your side,” Mr. Obama said from London. “We’re going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet.”

Richard Serino, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that local officials did “an unbelievable job” with the immediate response and that his agency would be there “for the long haul” to help with the recovery.

FEMA chief Craig Fugate flew over the area Tuesday morning with Mr. Nixon and other officials. State Sen. Ron Richard was on the flight, checking out damage to his hometown.

“It’s like taking a mower through tall grass. That’s what it looks like,” Mr. Richard said. “The devastation is complete. It is down to the ground.”

Associated Press writers David Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., and Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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