JOPLIN, Mo. – A massive tornado that blasted its way across southwestern Missouri on Sunday slammed into this city with cataclysmic force, tearing into a hospital, upending dozens of cars and scrubbing entire neighborhoods to the earth, leaving only a forest of splintered tree trunks behind.
An unknown number were killed in Joplin, and officials struggling to communicate without power and cell phone service were leery of putting a hard figure on a death toll they feared would rise after daybreak.
Asked about a report that 24 people had died, city spokeswoman Lynn Onstot said grimly that officials were "afraid it may be more. ... Our fear is that's a low number." The Missouri National Guard planned to search for the injured throughout the night.
"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," said Kerry Sachetta, the principal of a flattened Joplin High School. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."
The same storm system that produced the Joplin tornado spawned twisters along a broad swath of the Midwest, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. At least one person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri appeared to be the worst of the day, eerily reminiscent the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.
Onstot said the twister — believed to be between one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide — was on the ground for nearly four miles. It hit a hospital packed with patients and a commercial area including a Home Depot construction store, numerous smaller businesses and restaurants and a grocery store. An untold number of homes were destroyed and reduced to ruin.
Jasper County emergency management director Keith Stammer said an estimated 2,000 buildings were damaged citywide.
Among the worst hit locations in Joplin was St. John's Regional Medical Center, which appeared to suffer a direct hit from a tornado. The staff had just a few moments' notice to hustle patients into hallways before the storm struck the multistory building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.
In the parking lot, a helicopter lay crushed on its side, its rotors torn apart and windows smashed. Nearby, a pile of cars lay crumpled into a single mass of twisted metal. Matt Sheffer dodged downed power lines, trees and closed streets to make it to his dental office across from the hospital.
"My office is totally gone. Probably for two to three blocks, it's just leveled," he said. "The building that my office was in was not flimsy. It was 30 years old and two layers of brick. It was very sturdy and well built."
All of St. John's patients were quickly evacuated and moved to other hospitals in the region, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the medical center's sister hospital in Springfield. She had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike.
Missouri authorities said they could confirm that people had died in Joplin, but the exact number was unknown late Sunday. Details about fatalities and injuries were difficult to obtain even for emergency management officials, because the tornado knocked out power, landline phones and some cellphone towers, said Greg Hickman, assistant emergency management director in Newton County.
Triage centers and shelters were setup around the city of about 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, nurses and other emergency workers from area hospitals were treating critically injured patients.
The storm that hit Joplin spread debris about 60 miles away, with medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items falling to the ground in Greene County, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.
Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings.
Emergency management officials rushed heavy equipment to Joplin to help lift debris and clear the way for search and recovery operations. Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, and President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with state and local agencies.
Obama issued a statement sending condolences to families of those who died in storms in Joplin and across the Midwest.
Jeff Lehr, a reporter for the Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to make his way to a basement closet.
"There was a loud huffing noise, my windows started popping. I had to get downstairs, glass was flying. I opened a closet and pulled myself into it," he told The Associated Press. "Then you could hear everything go. It tore the roof off my house, everybody's house. I came outside and there was nothing left."
He said people were walking around the streets outside trying to check on neighbors, but in many cases there were no homes to check. Amid the chaos, rescue workers and residents alike walked dazed through the wreckage.
"There were people wandering the streets, all mud covered," he said. "I'm talking to them, asking if they knew where their family is. Some of them didn't know, and weren't sure where they were. All the street markers were gone."
On social networking sites, people with ties to Joplin and even those without were calling for prayers for the southwest Missouri city. Some people were quick to post that they and their families are OK, or to get the word out that loved ones are missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines, but able to text and use social media.
Resident Tom Rogers walked around viewing the damage with his daughter.
"Our house is gone. It's just gone," Rogers told The Joplin Globe. "We heard the tornado sirens for the second time. All of a sudden, everything came crashing down on us. We pulled our heads up and there was nothing. It was gone."
In Minneapolis, city spokeswoman Sara Dietrich said the death was confirmed by the Hennepin County medical examiner. She had no other immediate details. Only two of the 29 people injured there were hurt critically.
Though the damage covered several blocks in Minneapolis, it appeared few houses were totally demolished. Much of the damage was to roofs, front porches that had been sheared away, or smaller items such as fences and basketball goals.
In Wisconsin, the mayor of La Crosse declared a state of emergency Sunday after a severe storm hit, tearing roofs from homes and sending emergency responders. No one was seriously injured.
Sunday's storms followed a tornado Saturday night that swept through a small eastern Kansas town, killing one person and destroying at least 20 homes, as severe thunderstorms pelted the region with hail that some residents described as the size of baseballs, authorities said Sunday.
Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson identified the victim as Don Chesmore, 53, of Reading. He was in a mobile home that flipped. He was taken to a hospital in Emporia, where he was pronounced dead.
Additional storms were predicted across the southern Plains through Thursday morning.
An advisory from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said warm weather Monday could fuel instability in advance of another weather system. A few tornadoes, some strong, could occur — starting in Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the afternoon and in North Texas in the late afternoon.
Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth, Dana Fields, Chris Clark and Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo.; Todd Richmond in La Crosse, Wis.; Chris Williams and Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis; Kelly Kissel in Little Rock; and Emily Fredrix in New York contributed to this report.