A residential neighborhood in Joplin, Mo., is seen Monday, May 23, 2011 after it was leveled by a tornado that destroyed nearly 30 percent of the town on Sunday afternoon. The twister cut a six-mile path through the city. (AP Photo/Tulsa World, Adam Wisneski)
Major employers in and around the city include electronics manufacturer LaBarge Inc., colleges such as Missouri Southern State University and hospitals and clinics. Agriculture is also important to the economy.
As the tornado bore down on their trailer home, Joshua Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers fled to a Walmart store. The family narrowly escaped after a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a makeshift tent that shielded them.
“It was 15 minutes of hell,” Wohlford said.
At a Fast Trip convenience store, another 20 people ran into a pitch-black cooler as the building began to collapse around them. They documented their experience with a video that was drawing tens of thousands of views online by Monday afternoon. The audio was even more terrifying than the imagery — earsplitting wind, objects getting smashing, wailing children and a woman praying repeatedly.
Brennan Stebbins said the group crouched on the floor, clinging to and comforting each other until they were able to crawl out. No one was seriously hurt.
Shielded by mattresses, former lawmaker Chuck Surface rode out the storm in his basement with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and dog. After about five minutes, the deafening roar abruptly stopped.
“When it got to where we thought we could look out,” he said, “we went to the top of the stairs and there was no roof — it was all open air.”
Dazed survivors tried to salvage clothes, furniture, family photos and financial records from their flattened or badly damaged homes.
Kelley Fritz rummaged briefly through what was left of a storage building, then gave up. Her boys, both Eagle Scouts, rushed into the neighborhood after realizing every home was destroyed.
When they returned, she said, “my sons had deceased children in their arms.”
Others just waited for answers.
Justin Gibson stood outside the tangled remains of a Home Depot and pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into them. It belonged to his roommate's brother, last seen at the store with his two young daughters.
“I don't know the extent of this yet,” Gibson said, “but I know I'll have friends and family dead.”
Last month, a ferocious pack of twisters roared across six Southern states, killing more than 300 people, more than two-thirds of them in Alabama.
As in the Midwest, the Southerners also had warning — as much as 24 minutes. But those storms were too wide and too powerful to escape. They obliterated entire towns from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Bristol, Va., in what the weather service said was the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak since April 1974.
“This was one tornado,” said Greg Carbin, warning specialist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “It was not the same type of large-scale outbreak.”
It did, however, get the attention of those who suffered in the South.
“We're praying for those people,” said retired Marine Willie Walker, whose Tuscaloosa home suffered more than $50,000 in damage. “We know what they're going through because we've been there already.”
Forecasters said severe weather would probably persist all week. Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma could see tornadoes through Tuesday, and the bad weather could reach the East Coast by Friday.
The twister that hit Joplin was one of more than 50 reported across seven Midwest states over the weekend. One person was killed in Minneapolis and another in Kansas, but Missouri took the hardest hits.
Triage centers and shelters around Joplin rapidly filled to capacity. At a Lowe's home-improvement store, wooden planks served as cots.
Kerry Sachetta, principal of a flattened Joplin High School, could barely recognize his own building.
“You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing,” he said. “That's really what it looked like.”
Associated Press Writer David A. Lieb in Jefferson City contributed to this report.