At least 89 people died from a tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri, City Manager Mark Rohr told reporters this morning.
Residents in the southwest Missouri city braced for news of fatalities after the vicious tornado flattened buildings, tossed cars and hurled debris up to 70 miles away, CNN reported.
“I would say 75 percent of the town is virtually gone,” Kathy Dennis of the American Red Cross said Sunday night.
But Joplin Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer put the estimate at 10 to 20 percent.
“The particular area that the tornado went through is just like the central portion of the city, and it’s very dense in terms of population,” Stammer said on CNN’s American Morning today.
He said officials have a list of places where people are believed to be trapped.
“We have been working all night long, and we will continue to do so until we get to everybody,” he said.
Stammer said more than 40 agencies from Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri have responded.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated the Missouri National Guard and stressed urgency in rescuing survivors after the Sunday evening twister.
“It’s total devastation, with a hospital down, the high school down, other areas,” he said. “We just want to make sure that as the night goes on, we’re saving lives between now and dawn.”
Joplin city spokeswoman Lynn Ostot said about 1/2 to one mile of the city was affected, including residential and commercial districts. The city is home to about 50,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.
Aerial footage from CNN affiliate KOTV showed houses reduced to lumber and smashed cars sitting atop heaps of wood. Some structures were engulfed in flames.
Amber Gonzales was driving through southwest Missouri when she heard tornado warnings on the radio. She took refuge at a gas station before getting back on the road and seeing the aftermath of what she narrowly missed.
“There were about 10 semis turned over on their sides on the highway,” Gonzales told CNN. “I had to go around semis on the road.”
She then stopped at a Joplin shopping center to find cars flipped over in the parking lot and rescuers extracting people from the debris.
“Bodies were being pulled from buildings,” said Gonzales, who said she did not know the conditions of those yanked from the rubble. “People were pulled out of cars. People were marking cars that had been checked.”
Some good Samaritans didn’t wait for emergency vehicles to reach the injured.
“I saw an older woman taken on the back of a truck bed, speeding down the road,” Gonzales said. “I can’t get the lady out of my mind ... I don’t know if she made it.”
Other witnesses also reported seeing some of the wounded ferried to hospitals in the backs of pickup trucks as first responders struggled to handle the overwhelming destruction.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin was hit directly by the tornado and suffered significant structural damage, city officials said. CNN affiliate KSHB said there were reports of fires throughout the hospital.
One facade of the building made of glass was completely blown out, and authorities evacuated the medical center, said Ray Foreman, a meteorologist with CNN affiliate KODE in Joplin. Makeshift triage centers were set up in tents outside, witness Bethany Scutti said.
Hospital in tatters; neighborhood disappears Video
Residents 70 miles away from Joplin in Dade County, Missouri, found X-rays from St. John’s in their driveways, said Foreman, indicating the size and power of the twister.
The tornado, which touched down just before 7 p.m. ET, cut a path of destruction through the heart of the city, hitting heavily populated areas, Foreman said.