In Joplin, salvaging what they can as skies darken

In Joplin, salvaging what they can as skies darken

The death toll from Sunday's tornado rises to 122 as rescuers continue to look for survivors. Hundreds seek shelter before new storms strike.

By Nicholas Riccardi, Matt Pearce and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

May 25, 2011

Reporting from Joplin, Mo., and Los Angeles

As the sky filled with dark clouds again, the pace picked up on Kentucky Avenue.

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Tim Jasinski, a 44-year-old contractor, loaded bundles of sheetrock into the back of his pickup, then added a bicycle belonging to one of his seven children. He cast a glance back at his house, a century-old bungalow he had been renovating before a tornado touched down Sunday.

"It's gone," he said Tuesday. "It's just a matter of how long before it topples. We're just salvaging what we can."

Photos: Devastation in Joplin, Mo.

As the death toll from one of the nation's deadliest tornadoes rose to 122, with more than 750 injured, residents raced to salvage what they could before new storms struck. Throughout Joplin's six-mile-long swath of destruction, rescue teams probed and dug through splintered ruins in a desperate search for survivors.

Elsewhere, five people were reported killed late Tuesday when at least one tornado touched down just west of Oklahoma City. A tornado also struck a three-county area of central and eastern Pennsylvania, but there were no reports of serious damage or injury.

In Joplin, tornado sirens sounded about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, and again shortly after 10. No twisters touched down, but a tornado watch remained in effect until 3 a.m.

Earlier in the day, rescuers searched a half-collapsed Wal-Mart, a Home Depot and a large apartment complex, also in ruins.

Two people were found alive in damaged buildings Tuesday, in addition to seven found the day before.

The tornado, which packed winds of over 200 mph, was the eighth deadliest in U.S. history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the worst since 1947, when 181 people died in Woodward, Okla. Officials in Joplin said 8,000 structures had been damaged, many beyond repair.

It was one of a series of devastating tornadoes that have struck the Midwest and South this spring, causing more than 480 deaths.

The scene Tuesday on Kentucky Avenue was typical of what was happening all along the path of destruction in this city of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri, close by Oklahoma and Kansas. Homeowners, joined by friends and family, gathered up personal items and frantically tried to shore up tottering houses as the sky turned from a welcome hazy blue to an ever-darker and more threatening gray.

Before Sunday, this was a pleasant, leafy block of early 20th century bungalows with converted attics. Many of those attics were lopped off by Sunday's storm. Oaks lay across lawns, roofs and living rooms, shorn of their bark and leaves. Yards were heaped with torn-out insulation, mud and battered belongings.

Across the street from Jasinski, John Mott stood on his debris-covered lawn, sipping a Coke and considering the state of his home.

"The inside is kindling," he said. "The south wall is separated from the foundation and I'm trying to prop it up so it can survive another night."

Mott was wistful, remembering how friendly the street had been, how folks had looked out for one another. His eyes focused on a devastated bungalow across the street where an elderly man used to live. The man died before the storm.

"He lived there since 1958, and I'm glad he didn't get to see what happened to his house," Mott said.

His attention returned to how he would survive the night ahead. "Pray," he said. "We don't have a lot of choice."

While some people insisted on staying in their battered houses, others had no choice but to seek shelter. At Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, 143 people took refuge in a basketball arena; elsewhere, 34 people stayed in a church. Public health officials administered tetanus shots and about 190 National Guard troops helped search for survivors.

Police made several looting arrests, and the city instituted a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the damaged zone, Chief Lane Roberts said at a news conference.

About 1,500 people were reported missing. However, City Manager Mark Rohn emphasized: "That does not mean they are injured or deceased. It means loved ones are not aware of their whereabouts for many reasons." Many people were without working phones, and traveling even a short distance in the city was difficult.

Social networking sites pulsed with messages. "I am looking for my family … on Peace Church Road," one man wrote on Facebook. "If anyone has had contact with them please let them know that Paul … is concerned."

Another message: "To anyone out there that knows the family of little boy SKYLAR, please tell them to check with Children's Mercy Hospital."

In central Joplin, Shane Hunter and his squad of firefighters, both full-time and volunteer, stood wearily by a huge pile of wreckage. The dozens of hours they had spent painstakingly searching piles of debris were written on their faces.

"There's stuff laying on top of stuff laying on top of stuff," said Steve Slagle, a volunteer from Springfield, Mo.

When Hunter and the rest of his team — a mix of firefighters and volunteers with emergency response experience from as far as Nashville — first arrived late Sunday, they hoped they'd be pulling living people from the rubble. But after checking a four-mile area, they had found no one.

"I don't think there are any survivors," said Hunter, from nearby Diamond, Mo. "It becomes more of a search and recovery."

Just then his radio squawked. He put it to his ear. They found some people, he told his team. "They're taking them to B company now."

At the news of survivors, the exhausted, grimy faces allowed themselves the slightest grins. Hunter, laconically, said, "Cool." Then he told his team they had to move along.

Devastation in Joplin, Mo.

Riccardi and Pearce reported from Joplin, Landsberg from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.