For Joplin, Nothing Is Certain in Tornado's Wake

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Benjamin Krain / Getty Images

Much of Joplin, Mo., seen here on May 24, 2011, lies in rubble after a massive tornado passed through the town, killing more than 100 people, on May 22. It has been called the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. in 60 years

On Wednesday morning, residents of Joplin were as uncertain about the fate of their loved ones as officials were about just how many people had died after the eighth deadliest tornado in U.S. history ripped through this Missouri town. In the media, the record of the missing and dead in this town of roughly 50,000 has been shifting by the hour. In a Tuesday-morning press conference, Joplin fire chief Mitch Randles announced that 116 people had been killed, to which a reporter rebutted that the Associated Press was reporting 117, on the basis of a source in Governor Jay Nixon's office. "That's not from us," Randles curtly replied.

By the afternoon, the New York Times had quoted Captain Robert Daus of the Maryland Heights Fire District as saying that 1,500 people were missing. While the article noted that the alarmingly high number could be a reflection of a breakdown in communication systems, the figure spread quickly — online and in Joplin. "I heard they can't find 1,500 people," said Roxi Mills, a resident of Joplin, on Tuesday evening. Having driven through the wreckage, Mills thought that number might even be low.

By the end of the day, the city of Joplin had posted a message on its Facebook page clarifying the report of the 1,500 who were still missing. "This does NOT mean they are injured or deceased, just that loved ones are not aware of their whereabouts," the post stated. But the message didn't soothe everyone. "Is there any way anyone in Joplin could list the people who are still missing?" a commenter logged on as Chris Taylor wrote. "It might help many who still have no idea if a friend or relative is missing." (The American Red Cross has a site on which survivors can enter information about their welfare into a searchable database:

Many displaced Joplin residents are now holding up with friends or relatives. Mills, 30, whose apartment was destroyed by the tornado, said she brought her children to her grandmother's one-bedroom residence. Seven people slept there on Tuesday night. Stories like hers are common. Perry Elkins, a public-affairs representative at a Red Cross shelter in town, said that on Monday night, only 143 people stayed at the shelter, even though its capacity is 1,000. "People stayed in their vehicles, in their neighbor's houses," Elkins said. Mills echoed the sentiment: "It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody."

Mark Rohr, Joplin's city manager, went over the grim numbers late Tuesday night with yet another reporter in a tired, almost robotic tone. He said the fatalities had risen to 123 as of 7 p.m. and that some 750 people had sustained injuries. Rescuers had almost completed their third sweep through the rubble with cadaver-sniffing dogs. On Tuesday, they discovered two survivors, bringing the total found alive in the wreckage to nine. The estimated 1,500 missing, Rohr said, was calculated on the basis of the people who had called in from the region and across the country to report those who were not in contact. "We're not sure in every instance what [the] circumstances are, and that's what we're trying to pinpoint," Rohr said. Still, he is realistic that the number of fatalities is likely to rise. "It needs to be said that I'm certain there's a percentage of those [1,500] people we lost," he said. "We certainly hope that's a low percentage."

For many residents of Joplin — a town that Rohr said has a long-standing reputation for being friendly — the future simply is not imaginable. Mills and her grandmother Bonnie, 71, can't locate a relative, Dixie Kenny. Kenny, 73, lived alone on the east side of town, in the path of the tornado. But they are holding on to hope. "You would think that if she's O.K., she'd be letting us know," said Bonnie, who works as a volunteer for the city. "But we found out tonight that one of my granddaughter's friends couldn't find one of his good friends. And he had been taken to a hospital in Kansas because a tree limb hit him, and he was hurt really bad. They took him in a helicopter to Chanute, Kansas. There's a hospital up there. Maybe she's somewhere like that, you know? We don't know. Maybe she didn't have any identification on her. Maybe."