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122 confirmed dead in wake of Joplin tornado

May 24, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Sirens blared in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday night as another tornado rolled through the already devastated area.

At the local Outback Steakhouse, patrons shuffled into freezers as a precaution. Everyone was calm, though there was clearly apprehension as strangers huddled in the cold.

A break in the weather earlier in the day gave Joplin residents and officials a chance to assess the damage.

Rescue crews scoured through the wreckage where an earlier tornado swept across the town. At least 122 people were confirmed dead and 750 people are hurt.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration upgraded the earlier tornado from an EF4 to an EF5, which is the highest rating assigned to twisters based on the damage they cause. An EF5 tornado has wind speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. Scientists said it appeared to be a rare "multivortex" tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.

The amount of devastation in the town of 50,000 is staggering. The strong winds splintered homes, crumpled businesses and crushed cars in the Missouri town, walloped by the deadliest single tornado in nearly six decades.

To the northeast, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says rescuers pulled 17 people from the rubble in Joplin, and he believes others are still alive. But as the days pass, the chance of finding other survivors grows more remote.

A Miniature Pinscher named Lilly was one of the lucky ones.

"I went out and started hollering for her, and she started yipping and crawled out to me," said Joplin resident Tyler Taylor.

The dog doesn't have a scratch on her. Taylor said she was hiding in a bathroom, but most of the home around her was destroyed.

"We didn't have much time, probably 10 or 15 minutes was all we had to get out of here," said Joplin resident Larry Eller.

A priority 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 areas. Emergency officials warned jittery residents well in advance of the test.

Many of those who rode the storm out did it in basements. They say it was key. Anything above ground was pretty much wiped out.

"I'll never live in another house without one," said Joplin resident Dale Kitts.

Kitts and his family also made it through the storm unscathed. They know they are lucky, but they must still start the process of rebuilding their lives.

Many residents said they are unsure if they want to rebuild their lives again in tornado country.

During his trip to the United Kingdom, President Barack Obama offered words of comfort to those struggling with the tragedy back home.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who are suffering at this moment," Obama said. "And 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."

The president will visit Missouri this weekend and has already sent representatives from Federal Emergency Management Agency. Obama vowed to make all federal resources available for efforts to recover and rebuild.

This was the second major tornado disaster to hit the U.S. in less than a month. In April, a pack of twisters tore through six southern states, killing more than 300 people, more than two-thirds of them in Alabama.

Unlike the multiple storms across the South in April, Joplin was smashed by just one exceptionally powerful tornado. Not since a June 1953 tornado in Flint, Mich., had a single twister been so deadly. That storm also killed 116, according to the National Weather Service.

A meteorologist at the 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.

At least seven people were killed Tuesday when a series of tornadoes rolled through Oklahoma City and Kansas, authorities said.

If you would like to donate to the relief efforts to help the victims of the massive tornadoes, including the ones that struck Joplin, Missouri, click here.

ABC7 Eyewitness News reporter John Gregory is the only local reporter in Joplin. Look for his live reports Tuesday on Eyewitness News.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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