Joplin Death Toll at 116 Making It Deadliest Tornado in Nearly 60 Years

116 dead and another 500 injured by a single funnel.

May 22, 2011, 11:35 PM

May 23, 2011— -- The death toll from the monster tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., has soared to 116, making it the deadliest single tornado in nearly 60 years, according to federal records.

And, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told The Associated Press of the death toll, "Clearly, it's on its way up."

The lethal Joplin twister has also made 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1953, with 454 deaths in 1,000 tornadoes so far, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA began keeping records of tornado fatalities in 1950. Before Sunday's storm, the deadliest tornado hit Flint, Mich., on June 8, 1953, also killing 116 people, although independent record keepers have recorded higher death counts in earlier years.

This past April also set a record as the deadliest month on record with 361 tornado related deaths, according to NOAA's records.

The Joplin tornado was rated as an EF-4, the second-strongest classification with winds ranging between 166 and 200 mph. The nearly mile-wide funnel touched down at 5:41 p.m. CT Sunday and blasted a six mile wide path through the city and left trapped survivors crying out for help this morning.

Rescuers shifted through rubble today looking for survivors as high winds and hail continues to plague the area.

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As of approximately nightfall Monday, 17 people had been pulled alive from the wreckage, Gov. Nixon said.

In fact, the storm and its aftermath included amazing stories of survival.

One man was saved by rescuers after texting his friend his location and the words, "I'm alive."

"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," Kerry Sachetta, the principal of Joplin High School, which was mangled by the tornado. "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."

Nixon declared a state of emergency Sunday evening and activated the Missouri National Guard in response to the destruction.

Four people were killed at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin when it took a direct hit from the tornado. Patients and staff have been evacuated as damage suffered during the storm has affected the structural integrity of the building. Every window in the facility was blown out and the top two floors were blown off, ABC News affiliate KMBC reported.

Hospital spokeswoman Cora Scott told the station that 183 patients were in the hospital at the time and the facility only had five minutes warning that the tornado would strike. More than 100 patients have since been evacuated to other hospitals, Scott said.

Seven people have been reported dead at a nursing home, according to police reports.

Kelley Fritz, a 45-year-old resident of Joplin, went out with her family after the storm to survey the damage. "My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back," said Fritz. "My husband and I went out and saw two or three dead bodies on the ground."

Authorities estimate 25 to 30 percent of Joplin has been damaged by the tornado, with highly populated areas having been hit by the storm.

Cries could be heard early this morning from people trapped below the wreckage, while crews have been pulling out bodies and lining them up in the streets for loved ones to identify, according to ABC News affiliate KODE.

Search and rescue efforts are being hampered by continuing severe weather today, including 40 mph gusts and hail. Strong winds can topple the cranes used to lift wreckage, although current wind speeds are still allowing their use.

More severe weather, including high winds, rain and hail, is expected Tuesday before the storms finally abate later in the week, according to Accuweather meteorologist Mark Paquette.

There is also a fear of gas explosions in the storm's aftermath and authorities are telling people not to light any cigarettes because so many gas pipes are broken, causing concern that what's left of Joplin might go up in flames, KODE reported.

"These storms have caused extensive damage across Missouri, and they continue to pose significant risk to lives and property," Gov. Nixon said. "As a state, we are deploying every agency and resource available to keep Missouri families safe, search for the missing, provide emergency medical care, and begin to recover."

State and local law enforcement agencies, including fire mutual aid, are coordinating search and rescue and recovery operations. The Missouri State Highway Patrol sent troopers from other regions to help local officers in southern Missouri deal with the destruction, the governor's office said in a statement.

Keith Stammer, emergency management director for the city of Joplin, told "Good Morning America" that all 25 of the city's sirens did activate, and that there was a 20-minute notice from when the sirens were activated before there was a first report of a tornado strike.

"At the moment its surreal, our landmarks are gone -- road signs, places where you know to turn -- we're doing search and rescue, going house to house on that six mile strip," Stammer told "GMA."

Jeff Piotrowsky, a storm chaser who was in Joplin at the time the storm hit and spoke to "GMA" about witnessing the tornado form over the city, said, "We saw a big cloud mass and we knew it was going to start tornadoing. It quickly brewed to a half mile wide, then three-quarters ? then it came to the heart of the city," Piotrowsky said, adding that "there was a warning, about 17 minutes."

Federal Emergency Management Agency Region VII set up a response coordination center and sent a liaison team to the Missouri state emergency communications center, according to a FEMA official.

"Basically it's an all-out effort to get all of the most important resources available for this type of situation down as soon as possible," a state emergency management representative said.

In total, 70 tornadoes were produced by the storm system since Friday, including at least 47 tornadoes Sunday. Tornadoes were reported in seven states from the Canadian border to Oklahoma. Warnings and watches were posted from Texas to Michigan.

President Obama released a statement on the emergency late Sunday night, saying, "Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives in the tornadoes and severe weather that struck Joplin, Missouri as well as communities across the Midwest today. We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time," Obama said in the statement.

"At my direction, FEMA is working with the affected areas' state and local officials to support response and recovery efforts, and the federal government stands ready to help our fellow Americans as needed," he added.

The President is sending FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to Missouri to ensure that the state has all the support it needs. Today, FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino will also travel to Joplin to survey the destruction in the town and meet with state and local officials.

Earlier Sunday, tornadoes had torn across other parts of the region, killing at least one person in Minneapolis.

Storms Rattle Midwest

Midwest residents were cleaning up Sunday after several tornadoes Saturday left one man dead and one Kansas town nearly destroyed.

At least 20 tornadoes were reported across three states Saturday: 14 in Kansas, five in Oklahoma, and one in Missouri.

In the small town of Reading, Kan., twisters ripped through the area and left more than 20 homes destroyed and 200 more damaged.

"Lots of damage all over town, the farther south in town the more damage there is. Lots of trees down, large trees, there's buildings that have been totally devastated," said Coffee County Emergency Coordinator Russel Stukey.

One fatality and several injuries were reported in connection with the twisters, according to authorities.

"Everything is destroyed. We're going to have to stay strong for the community," one resident told Kansas City ABC News affiliate KMBC.

Power was knocked out Saturday and roads in and out of area were closed, KMBC reported.

According to Sharon Watson with the Kansas State Division of Emergency Management, there was also hail as large as a baseball reported throughout northeast part of the state.

"We've been fortunate so far to not have as much damage as we have seen in the past, such as the year 2007 when the town of Greensburg was basically destroyed, a town of 1,500," Watson said.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of emergency for at least 16 counties.

Although there have already been several devastating tornadoes this year, experts have seen no indication of an upward trend in either tornado intensity or numbers.

"There is very little increase in the total number of tornadoes and we don't see any increase in the number of violent tornadoes," Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, told ABC News. "It's just that these things are coming and they're very rare and extreme and they happen to be hitting populated areas. So right now no indication of an upward trend in the strong to violent tornadoes that we're seeing."

NOAA says the main cause for the tornadoes this year has been a prolonged stretch of warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, which has been colliding with cooling air, creating ripe conditions for tornadoes.

ABC News' Jackie Meretsky and the Associated Press contributed to this report.