Search teams bathed in the harsh glow of floodlights early today picked through rubble of neighborhoods and commercial districts demolished by a tornado that killed at least 30 people in the southwestern Missouri town of Joplin.
"We are recovering the dead," Joplin police Sergeant Bob Higginbotham said hours after the powerful twister struck yesterday afternoon, leaving much of the town of 50,000 residents in ruins and plunging the city into darkness once night fell.
Higginbotham was busy collecting the names of people reported missing. "(It's) devastating loss of life, horrible, and it goes on for miles," he said.
Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges put Joplin's death toll at 30 or more, on par with the loss of life from a twister that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last month. More than 30 died in that storm.
"We know we are up into the 30 range," Bridges told Reuters, adding that 11 bodies were recovered from one location alone and that the known casualty count would likely climb. "People are just telling us where they have seen bodies and adding them up in their heads."
Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Jasper County, where Joplin is located, said the full extent of the devastation would not become apparent until after dawn.
"Let the sun come up (and) maybe we'll know more," he said. "We have to go through every building, every house. It's going to take a long time."
Bridges said a temporary morgue was set up at the Missouri Southern State University.
Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and ordered Missouri National Guard troops deployed to help state troopers and other agencies respond to storms he said "have caused extensive damage across Missouri."
Joplin City Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean, who serves as vice mayor, said the town was in a state of "chaos."
"It is just utter devastation anywhere you look to the south and the east - businesses, apartment complexes, houses, cars, trees, schools, you name it, it is leveled, leveled," she told Reuters by telephone earlier today.
Stammer estimated that about 10 per cent of the city, encompassing about 2,000 structures, had borne the brunt of the storm, based on initial aerial surveillance showing that the tornado had cut a swath about 6 miles long and one-half to three-fourths of a mile wide through town.
The storm followed an earlier burst of violent spring weather in the United States that claimed over 330 lives as tornadoes swept seven states last month. That included 238 deaths in Alabama alone on April 27 as twisters battered Tuscaloosa and other towns.
President Barack Obama issued a statement expressing his "deepest condolences" to families of the Missouri victims. He said he had directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support response and recovery efforts.
Video footage carried on the Weather Channel and local TV news shortly after the storm struck showed whole neighborhoods flattened, cars and trucks smashed and flipped upside down, trees uprooted and fires burning amid piles of debris.
One local hospital, St. John's Regional Medical Centre, was hit hard by the twister, and several patients were hurt as the tornado ripped through the building, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for a sister facility in Springfield, Missouri, just east of Joplin.
"It is extensive damage," Scott said. "The roof is gone. A lot of the windows are blown out.
Carla Tabares said she, her husband and several families with children squeezed into the kitchen cooler of an Outback Steakhouse restaurant in town when the twister neared, huddling in the chilled darkness until the howling of the storm passed.
"It was really awful, really scary," she said. The restaurant emerged largely unscathed. "I'm just thankful we got out alive, and I really feel sorry for the people who didn't."
Joplin-area resident Denise Bayless, 57, told Reuters that many buildings on Main Street were obliterated and the town's only high school was burning.
Beth Peacock, manager of a concert hall in town said several hundred people converged on the facility seeking shelter and medical treatment after the storm struck.
Steve Runnels, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the tornado was so strong that it stripped the bark off trees.
Another tornado ripped through the north end of Minneapolis and some suburbs yesterday, tearing roofs off dozens of homes and garages, killing one person and injuring at least 30 others, authorities said.
That twister struck yesterday afternoon and plowed across a 3-to-5-mile (5-to-8-km) area, Assistant City Fire Chief Cherie Penn told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Storms knocked out electricity to about 22,000 homes and businesses in the area, but power was restored to several thousand customers within hours, according to Xcel Energy Inc spokeswoman Mary Sandok.
Tornadoes overnight on Saturday in northeast Kansas killed one person and damaged some 200 structures. A state of emergency was declared for 16 counties, state officials said.