Joplin, Missouri, Tornado Death Toll Rises

Hopes dim for the 100 people still listed as missing a week after storm.

May 28, 2011, 4:32 PM

May 28, 2011— -- The death toll now stands at 139 from the tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, a week ago, with more than 100 people still unaccounted for, officials said today.

Missouri Department of Public Safety deputy director Andrea Spillars said 50 officers have been working around the clock to notify family members of the status of missing family members with "accuracy and respect, with the hope that healing and mourning can begin."

To avoid mistakes and inaccurate identification Spillars said the identification of victims is being conducted by matching remains with X-rays, dental records and other identifying marks.

"The tornado that went through this community was not limited to just building and structures ... it includes human and partial remains," she said.

With cell service still considered spotty, authorities say they believe many of the missing could be alive, but not in a position to get in touch. However, they caution that many on the list may have been killed in the storm.

As the community of Joplin continues to clear debris, recover, and make sense of the aftermath left from the strong 200 mph winds that seized upon them last week, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon proclaimed Sunday a day to a pause for those affected by the storm.

"During this day of prayer and this memorial service, I invite all Missourians to pause and remember their neighbors and draw upon the resources of their faith in support of their fellow Missourians," Nixon said in a statement.

Ahead of the moment of silence Aaron Cox and McKenzie Watson, a young couple who both lost their homes, tied the knot, giving guests -- many of whom lost their homes and loved ones -- a moment away from the pain and grief today.

The newlyweds said they weren't sure if they should continue with the ceremony, but family members urged them to go ahead with their plans. They said they believed what they went through was a sign that they made the right the decision.

Cox and his sister were first recognized for a widely publicized video of their frantic search to find each other.

Soon after they reunited, Cox discovered First Methodist church, where his wedding to Watson was scheduled to be held, was only slightly damaged and he was amazed to find that the only dress left undamaged was his bride's-to-be.

President Obama is scheduled to meet with those affected by the tornado and tour storm damage Sunday. He then has plans to speak at a Joplin Community Memorial Service on the campus of Missouri Southern State University.

His trip to Joplin comes after spending six days overseas focusing on foreign policy.

It will be weeks before the town of Joplin, a town of 49,000 people, understand the full impact of one of the toughest twisters that caused the highest death toll from a single tornado in more than 50 years.

"In the past decade the average annual death toll from tornadoes has been around 60 to 70 people," meterologist Greg Carbin told ABC News. "The average killer tornado claims about two lives and so what's going on this year is something well above that.

"We're now approaching about 500 fatalities for the year to date, just under that," he said. "That is something we have not experienced in this country in over 35 years and it still looks like we're still around the number nine as far as the deadliest year on record. So there have been many years in the past over the past couple of generations in which we've exceeded 500 fatalities in a year, it's just that they haven't occured recently."

He said that we will likely begin to see a decrease in tornadoes when summer begins.

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