Much of this southwestern Missouri city lay in ruins on Monday after a massive tornado, the latest storm to ravage the Midwest and South this spring, tore through the area, killing more than 100 people. Officials say they expect the death toll to climb.The twister, which touched down at about 6 p.m. Sunday in this city of 49,000 people, ripped apart buildings, started fires, uprooted trees and left cars in mangled stacks of metal. By Monday afternoon, the authorities confirmed 116 deaths.
Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri said the enormous size of the storm and its slow, plodding pace were to blame for the destruction.
This tornado basically started over Joplin and stayed there for a long time, Mr. Nixon said in an interview as he drove to Joplin to oversee rescue efforts. It is devastating but we are working hard to continue to find those that are still alive.
Mr. Nixon said five families had been found alive so far and were pulled from rubble.
Residents received a 24-minute warning that the tornado was headed toward the city, giving many a few precious moments to gather children and run for safety. When the tornado struck, it cut a path of damage through Joplin that officials estimate was a mile wide and four miles long, with wind speeds reaching 166 miles per hour.
As much as 30 percent of the town was damaged, including more than 2,000 buildings, among them a major hospital, a nursing home and several schools, firehouses and large stores, including a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot. Water treatment and sewage plants were also hit by high winds, and authorities cautioned residents to boil water.
It is very rare to get a tornado like this, but it is even more rare to get a tornado like this in a highly populated area like Joplin, said Doug Cramer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The tornado was part of a weather system in which cold and warm fronts collided throughout the middle sections of the country, meteorologists said an event apt to spawn supercell tornadoes along the storm front like the one that struck Joplin.
Doug Stillions, 59, and his wife, Melissa Stillions, 37, said that when they heard the tornado warning siren go off Sunday they hurriedly took cover in a neighbors basement with their 3-year-old son.
It was just a black wall to the west, Mr. Stillions said. It was dark as night.
They said they had held hands and prayed as the tornado slammed through at thunderous volume and an accompanying pressure so intense the couple said it felt as if their heads might explode.
As the sun rose Monday, they walked out into a world in which the few trees left standing had the bark stripped off them, a house on a hillside had been swept up and carried into a road, and the Stillionss own home had part of its roof sheared off.
The tornado scored a direct hit on St. Johns Regional Medical Center, and then appeared to stall over it for a minute or more, people inside the hospital at the time said. Portions of the hospitals roof had been pulled apart by the winds and sections of its facade were missing.
By Monday morning, the hospital, which is a major trauma care center in the area, had moved all its patients to other facilities, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
But it was uncertain how many of the 183 patients who were there when the tornado struck were killed.
Ms. Scott said the hospital had a few minutes of warning and were in the process of following the hospitals tornado plan moving patients into hallways when the tornado struck.
Rescue workers said nearly every patient in the hospital had been cut by glass that had been blown out of the hospitals windows.
It was mass chaos trying to get patients out, said Sgt. Rodney Rodebush, 30, a National Guard soldier who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan