Joplin, Missouri (AFP) May 25, 2011
Rescue teams and anguished families Wednesday were desperately searching for nearly 1,500 people listed as missing since a tornado ripped through a Missouri town, killing at least 125 residents.
But hopes of finding more survivors were fading as the third day of painstaking searches through the devastated homes of Joplin found no one in the rubble -- neither dead or alive.
"We're disappointed, but we're also relieved that we didn't find people in there," fire chief Mitch Randles said.
Officials are hoping that many of the missing have simply failed to check in with friends or family, but they also caution that the death toll is sure to rise given the incredible scope of destruction.
In what is one of the worst tornado seasons on record after a series of twisters killed hundreds in southern US states last month, Sunday's twister in Joplin is now the worst single tornado to strike America in six decades.
The massive twister tore apart everything it touched along a path four miles (six kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (over a kilometer) wide of this city of 50,000.
"It is a devastating scene," said Missouri public safety communications chief Mike O'Connell.
"I have seen a lot of tornado damage in the past, but never such a wide path, such a large path."
Heartbreaking stories were being replayed hourly on the local radio and on social networking sites as people searched for their loved ones, including panicked parents separated from their children.
The family of 16-month-old Skyular Logsdon launched an anxious search using the social network Facebook for the baby boy ripped from his mother's arms by the powerful winds.
"No, he has not been found," his grandmother, Milissa Burns, posted sadly on the site Wednesday. "I'm following all leads both good and bad... I just pray we all can work together on this. God bless."
Teenager Lantz Hare is also missing since being out driving with friends when the massive funnel cloud, with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour, hit Joplin with devastating force.
"He was on the phone with another friend, we believe, when the tornado actually hit the car. His friend Ryan says he could literally hear the swoosh came through and the phone went dead," his mother Michelle told CNN.
The American Red Cross has set up a website for people to list the names of the missing, but they have had little success so far reuniting families.
"It's been very difficult. We'd like to see a much greater number of families reunited," said Bill Benson, who is handling the Red Cross's social media and online outreach.
"We have a constant influx of folks coming in desperate asking can you help me -- we just don't know where to go."
Assistant shelter manager Amanda Marshall is among them -- her four-year-old niece and the girl's grandparents were nowhere to be found when her brother discovered the bodies of his wife and other daughter.
"I keep checking my cell phone -- I'm waiting for a text saying she's OK," Marshall told AFP.
Further complicating matters is the fact that officials have not released the names of the dead.
More than 8,000 structures in this town bordering the heartland states of Kansas and Oklahoma were damaged or destroyed when the twister came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.
In yet another tragedy, more twisters hit Oklahoma late Tuesday, killing at least eight people.
"We've got pretty extensive damage across the state," Jerry Smith, emergency management director for Canadian County, told AFP.
Joplin avoided a second hit by tornado, but the violent storm system rattled already shaky nerves as residents were forced to seek shelter from strong winds and blinding rain.
US President Barack Obama, on a visit to London, again sent his condolences to the people of Missouri, ahead of a visit to the area on Sunday.
"We have been battered by some storms. Not just this week but over the last several months. The largest death toll and devastation we have ever seen from tornadoes in the United States of America."
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced plans for a community memorial service Sunday as he vowed to do everything possible to help residents recover and rebuild.
"We feel it's extremely important for everyone to come together to recognize the significance of the loss here but also to be prepared to move forward together," he told reporters.
"We're going to battle together and come back as a stronger community."
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