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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Severe Storms Hit Wichita, Kan. (ContributorNetwork)

Tuesday morning brought the threat of severe weather to south-central Kansas. Weather forecasters predicted dangerous, violent storms, but our day dawned bright, clear and gorgeous. The weather guys said that the later in the afternoon that the storms spun up, the worse it would be.

However, in the early afternoon, it was looking like the dire predictions were not to come true. But true to its Midwest reputation, we never breathe a sigh of relief too soon, as the weather can change at the blink of an eye.

Everything changed around 4 p.m. The skies got dark and threatening, and I brought my kids and dogs inside. As we watched the news and saw the reports of storms hitting Oklahoma City just an hour south of us, we started to get worried.

The same storm system was dropping heavy rain and hail and strong winds at our home in Wichita, Kan. We turned on the television to the local news station, and kept an eye on the skies outside. I sent my kids and three dogs to the basement, just in case.

I do tend to go overboard when it comes to their protection, but with two kids and three young dogs, it takes us a minute or two to get everyone corralled in the basement, so I like to be proactive. It helps that we have a finished rec room downstairs, so the kids can play games and the dogs can lounge on their pillows and play with toys while they wait.

We got quite a bit of rain and hail, and heavy winds. We lost some branches off our mature trees in the front yard, but we had no major damage.

This was a relief, not only because we were in the house during the storm, but also because our house is also on the market, and we didn't want to have repairs to make in the middle of prospective buyers visiting. We were very lucky, as the same storm system spawned multiple tornadoes just to the south of us in Oklahoma, leaving several people dead and one unaccounted for.


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Understanding Tornado Terminology: What is an EF-5 Tornado? (ContributorNetwork)

With killer tornadoes in half a dozen states in the last month, information about the effective force of each tornado has been thrown around, but few people use the terms properly and fewer still know what they mean.

The Fujita scale was first proposed in 1971 and suggested a rating system for tornadoes and hurricanes based on the wind strength and damage done by the tornado. Since the evaluation of damage cannot begin while the tornado is on the ground, it is improper to discuss a tornado as an F-anything in the midst of the storm.

After a super outbreak of tornadoes around Oklahoma City in 1997, the National Weather Service argued that the wind strength estimates for Fujita scale needed to be revised, resulting in the adoption of the Enhance Fujita Scale, or EF rating of storms.

For clarity, both the largest of the tornadoes to hit Alabama on April 27 and the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Mo., were believed to be EF-4 tornadoes. However, the Severe Storms Center reviews data from the events long after they happen and may change a storms classification based on debris patterns and other information collected over months.

For example, on Nov. 19, 1991, a storm hit Marion, Ill., that was initially classified as a microburst, a sudden downburst of straight-line winds. Six months later, the Storm Prediction Center had reclassified it to an EF-3 tornado.

According to the NWS, the EF scale functions from 0 to 5 and while in theory an F-6 tornado could have been possible under the original Fujita scale, the enhanced scale considers an EF-5 representative of total destruction. Since nothing goes beyond total destruction, a tornado greater than an EF-5 cannot exist.

Based on the EF scale, an EF-0 event represents winds of less than about 75 mph and would damage roofs and tree limbs. An EF-5 tornado would have winds in excess of 261 mph and include total or near total destruction of all types of construction.

Tornado terminology is often used incorrectly, but the most important thing to understand is that the classification will always come after the fact. Until the storm is over, the tornado has no EF rating at all.

Lucinda Gunnin cut her teeth as a reporter covering Illinois government as an intern in the statehouse pressroom. She now brings 20 years experience and insight to covering news.


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Joplin tornado death toll rises to 125 (AP)

JOPLIN, Mo. – Rescuers refused to be deterred from their efforts to find survivors beneath Joplin's jagged piles of tornado rubble, even as the death toll rose Wednesday to 125.

No new survivors had been pulled from the city's wrecked neighborhoods, but determined crews carried on with the search, checking some areas for a fourth time since Sunday's disaster. They planned to do a fifth sweep, too.

"We never give up. We're not going to give up," City Manager Mark Rohr told a news conference. "We'll continue to search as we develop the next phase in the process."

Rohr raised by three the death toll of the nation's deadliest single tornado in more than 60 years. The estimated number of injured climbed to more than 900.

At least 50 dogs have joined the search, and the teams were also using listening devices in hopes of picking up the faint sound of anyone still alive beneath the collapsed homes and businesses.

"We've had stories from earthquakes and tsunamis and other disasters of people being found two or three weeks later," Fire Chief Mitch Randles said. "And we are hopeful that we'll have a story like that to tell."

Searchers "try to get into every space. We're yelling. We've got the dogs sniffing. We've got listening devices," Randles said.

Meanwhile, roughly 100 people were reviewing information about individuals who were reported missing after the storm. Rohr said the group was making progress, but he declined to say how many remain unaccounted for.

Authorities have cautioned that people who are unaccounted for are not necessarily dead or trapped in debris. Many, if not most, of them probably survived the storm but have failed to tell friends and family where they are.

The Joplin tornado was the deadliest single twister since the National Weather Service began keeping official records in 1950. It was the eighth-deadliest in U.S. history.

Scientists said the system was an EF-5, the strongest rating assigned to tornadoes, with winds of more than 200 mph.

It also appeared to be a rare "multivortex" tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.

Bill Davis, the lead forecaster on a weather service team sent to survey the damage, said he would need to look at video to confirm that.

But, he said, the strength of the tornado was evident from the many stout buildings that were damaged: St. John's Regional Medical Center, a bank that was destroyed except for its vault, a Pepsi bottling plant and "numerous well-built residential homes that were basically leveled."

Davis recalled his first thought on arriving in town to conduct the survey: "Where do you start?"


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Search for missing tornado victims enters fourth day (AFP)

JOPLIN, Missouri (AFP) – Rescuers and anguished families were still searching for hundreds of missing people on Thursday, four days after a tornado battered this US town, killing at least 125 people.

So far painstaking searches through the devastated homes of Joplin rescuers found no one in the rubble on Wednesday -- dead or alive.

"We're disappointed, but we're also relieved that we didn't find people in there," fire chief Mitch Randles said.

As of Wednesday, nearly 1,500 people were still reported missing. Officials expressed hope that many had simply failed to check in with friends or family while warning that the death toll was likely to rise.

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 Facebook for the baby boy ripped from his mother's arms by the powerful winds, and late Wednesday there were conflicting reports his body had been identified.

"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, who was out driving with friends when the massive funnel cloud struck with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour, was also missing.

"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.

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," he said.

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're going to battle together and come back as a stronger community," he told reporters.


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2 children, 1 woman found dead in NW Ark flooding (AP)

ROGERS, Ark. – Authorities in northwest Arkansas have recovered the bodies of a woman and two children who were swept away by floodwaters earlier this week.

Benton County's emergency management director Robert McGowen says the bodies were found Wednesday in a submerged car in Butler Creek. The woman, 5-year-old boy and 2-month-old girl went missing late Monday night, along with another woman who has yet to be found.

Authorities say they hadn't been seen since they drove into high waters Monday on their way home. One of the women called her husband and told him water was getting into their car.

Searchers scoured the region since then, using all-terrain vehicles and a helicopter.


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The nation's weather (AP)

By WEATHER UNDERGROUND, For The Associated Press Weather Underground, For The Associated Press – 2 hrs 34 mins ago

The focus of severe weather activity will shift eastward Thursday as the strong storm system that brought tornadoes to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana moves through Illinois into Indiana.

Warm, moist air ahead of this system will fuel more rain and thunderstorms from the Central Gulf Coast States through the Eastern Valley into New York. This activity is expected to decrease through the midday as the system weakens. Despite some weakening, warm and unstable conditions ahead of this system and its associated cold front will cause areas from the Central Gulf States through Upstate New York to be at slight risk of severe weather development. The strongest instability will focus from the Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachians through Upstate New York. While damaging wind will be the primary severe weather concern in these regions, atmospheric conditions, especially from the Ohio Valley through Upstate New York, may become favorable for supercell development.

Behind this activity, high pressure will prevail across the Plains with calm conditions. Hot, dry and windy conditions will maintain fire weather concerns and lead to an increased threat of wildfires in parts of New Mexico and Texas.

In the West, a late season storm will move through the Northern Intermountain West with gusty winds, unseasonably cold temperatures and a mix of light rain showers and high elevation snow showers. Meanwhile, cool and unsettled conditions will continue in the Pacific Northwest.

Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Wednesday ranged from a morning low of 24 degrees at Wolf Creek Pass, Colo., to a high of 101 degrees at Laredo, Texas.


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Monday, May 30, 2011

Powerful storms pound several central US states (AP)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – In storm-weary middle America, many people were counting themselves fortunate after powerful storms swept through the region for the third time in four days but apparently claimed no lives.

Dozens of people were injured, mobile homes were flipped and roofs were torn off houses when tornadoes and thunderstorms hit Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and other states Wednesday evening.

In southern Indiana, neighbors used flashlights to check on each other and their homes and barns near Bloomington after powerful winds overturned two mobile homes. Crews worked overnight to clear uprooted trees and downed power lines after a tornado touched down in a mostly rural area about 25 miles south near Bedford.

The extent of the damage wouldn't be known until daybreak, but residents expressed relief that no deaths were reported in the latest round of storms even though several homes were destroyed and more than a dozen people were injured, including three or four children.

"We're very fortunate," said Lawrence County Sheriff Sam Craig.

Wednesday's storms followed a deadly outbreak Tuesday in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas that killed at least 15 people. On Sunday, the nation's deadliest single tornado since 1950 killed 125 in the southwest Missouri city of Joplin.

The National Weather Service issued tornado watches and a series of warnings in a dozen states earlier Wednesday, stretching northwest from Texas though the Mississippi River valley to Ohio. By Thursday morning, tornado watches were in effect in most of Mississippi, northwestern Alabama and central Kentucky.

"This is just a wild ride," said Beverly Poole, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service's office in Paducah, Ky.

Heavy rain, hail and lightning pounded Memphis on Wednesday night as a tornado warning sounded. There were no confirmed reports of tornadoes touching down.

Back in southern Indiana, tow truck driver Martin Poteat was in the parking lot of the Walmart on the south side of Bloomington when the storm struck, ripping a cart corral loose and sending it into his truck and spawning up a debris cloud.

"Everything came up off the ground. Everything was just flying," he said.

Earlier in the day, as many as 25 people suffered minor injuries when a tornado damaged several homes and businesses in the central Missouri city of Sedalia. Officials said most were able to get themselves to the hospital for treatment.

"Considering the destruction that occurred in Joplin — being that we're in tornado alley and Sedalia has historically been hit by tornadoes in the past — I think people heeded that warning," Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said. "And so, I think that helped tremendously."

Officials in Sedalia ended the school year several days early because of damage to buses.

Sean McCabe was rushing to the basement of his mother's home in Sedalia when the tornado struck and shoved him down the final flight of steps. The 30-year-old suffered scrapes and cuts on his hands, wrists, back and feet. He said neighbors and firefighters helped him get out.

Most of the roof was ripped off the house, which was among the more heavily damaged homes in the area. McCabe, who has a service dog for epilepsy, said both his family's dogs survived, including one found muddy and wet about a block away.

"I saw little debris and then I saw big debris, and I'm like `OK, let's go,'" McCabe said.

Elsewhere in the hard-hit neighborhood, law officers stood on corners and electrical crews worked on power lines. Numerous trees were down, and tarps were covering some houses while others were missing chunks of their roofs. People were cleaning debris and sifting through belongings.

In Illinois, strong winds, rain and at least four possible tornadoes knocked down power lines and damaged at least one home and a number of farm buildings across the central and eastern parts of the state.

"Mostly it was shingles off roofs and garages," said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson.


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Tornado Warnings in North Texas Shut Down Airports (ContributorNetwork)

The unwelcome and increasingly familiar sound of tornado warning sirens were heard in yet another state early Wednesday, as officials warned residents in parts of Texas of the possibility that funnel clouds may touch down. The warning covered much of Texas County, following an alert by the National Weather Service that reported cloud formations favorable to the formation of tornadoes.

The Texas County twisters never materialized, to the relief of residents there, but warnings were also issued for North Texas as well, disrupting air travel as potential passengers were forced to evacuate Dallas airports ahead of storms. The area suffered hail and high winds, but fortunately no tornadoes. Airport officials were reportedly being cautious about reopening the airports before inspecting aircraft for damage from the hailstorm.

With the slew of violent storms that have whipped across the central and southern U.S. in recent months have come widespread devastation and an increasingly heavy loss of life. The tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., on Sunday is now known to have claimed the lives of at least 125 people, with hundreds more still missing.

Just a few days later, more tornadoes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas claimed the lives of an additional 14 people. That storm system is heading eastward, placing Arkansas, Mississippi, Indiana and Illinois on alert for more tornado activity.

Several media outlets have reported on the alarmingly high rate of tornado activity so far this year. The United States averages approximately 700 tornadoes in the first half of any given year, yet 2011 has already seen more than 1,200 funnels, with at least 500 dead. Weather forecasters blame the patterns of La Nina for the increased activity, and warn that this may be just the beginning.

Not good news for places like Joplin, where search-and-rescue efforts continued through the night on Tuesday and into Wednesday despite the threat of more storms and tornadoes. So far more than 17 people have been pulled from the wreckage. 823 are reported as injured, and an unknown number, thought to be in the hundreds, are still missing.


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Japanese from nuke town allowed 1st visit to homes (AP)

TAMURA, Japan – Donning white protective suits and masks, neighbors of Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear plant were finally able to return home Thursday for the first time since the crisis began more than two months ago, but only for two hours to stuff their belongings into garbage bags before leaving again.

Some residents stole a few minutes to light incense at a makeshift shrine in Namie, one of the deserted, evacuated towns frozen in time since March 11. Debris is still piled several stories high there, with a ship resting precariously atop one heap.

Around 80,000 people were evacuated from towns near the plant — including Futaba, home to the complex — soon after Japan's massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami flooded the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which then began spewing radiation. Local officials and nuclear experts escorted several dozen of them back for a two-hour visit Thursday.

"It was just like it was when the quake hit," said Anna Takano, a 17-year-old high school student. "It felt very strange."

Takano said she packed up as much clothing from her home as she could and then made a 10-minute visit to her family grave site.

For most, it was the first time they had been able to check on homes and possessions. Similar visits began earlier for towns farther away from the plant, but Thursday's excursion went deeper into the 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone around the plant than any before it.

Many evacuees from the nuclear zone did not realize how long the crisis would drag on and left with only the clothes they were wearing and their purses or wallets.

Due to radiation concerns, officials allowed only two people per household to return and let them stay at their homes only for two hours. They gave residents no more than one large black plastic bag for collecting things, because of space restrictions and fears of contamination.

"I planned very carefully what I would get," said Mikio Tadano, an architect. "I wanted to get my writing tools, my bankbook, and my daughter's school uniform."

Tadano said his daughter had transferred to a new school outside the zone where she was one of only four students without a uniform — all of them evacuees.

In Tamura, a town on the edge of the zone, residents donned white protective suits from head to foot at a sanitized gymnasium near the 12-mile (20-kilometer) perimeter, and then went into the zone by bus.

After the disaster knocked out cooling systems at the plant, it suffered explosions, fires and spewed radioactive particles into the air, prompting the government to order 80,000 residents around the plant to evacuate.

Radiation levels in most areas have since declined, but are believed to still pose potential health hazards if sustained for long periods of time.

The radiation in the air near the front gate of the plant surged to 12 millisieverts per hour on March 15, just hours after a third reactor exploded. On Thursday, the radiation level had fallen to 1 percent of that — 114 microsieverts, or 0.114 millisieverts — according to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator.

A typical chest X-ray emits about 50 to 100 microsieverts.

In the town of Namie, near Futaba, the radiation in the air was as high as 0.73 microsieverts per hour Thursday, regional nuclear safety official Masato Kino said. That's about half the level measured on March 30, the earliest date for which readings for the town were collected.

With better data now coming in, the government also recently added more areas to the evacuated zone, meaning another 7,000 outside the no-go zone in places previously believed to be safe are just now preparing to leave their towns.

Including those left homeless by the quake and tsunami, more than 100,000 people remain in shelters across northern Japan. More than 25,000 were killed or are missing.

As the hardships of living in shelters became more acute, the government came under intense pressure to let evacuees back in for short trips. It initially said the situation was too dangerous and the plant too unstable. But after announcing last month that the evacuation order would likely drag on for another six to nine months, the day trips were approved.

Thursday's trip by about 60 townspeople started with a briefing by Futaba officials and safety instructions by experts from TEPCO.

The residents were screened for radiation after the visit, but none showed health-threatening levels of exposure.

So far, 588 people have made visits to their homes. Another 16,000 more from nine towns are still lined up for trips that will be conducted over the next several weeks, according to another NISA official, Tatsuyuki Yamauchi.

A government team also went with the residents to rescue stranded dogs. They brought out four, all of which were in good spirits. Earlier in the crisis, when prohibitions on entering the zone were not strictly enforced, several private groups left food and water for lost dogs, keeping many alive long enough to be rescued and returned to their owners.

Cats have been more difficult to bring back. None were rescued Thursday.

Mihoko Watanabe, 73, said she left food and water for her cat, who remains at her home in Futaba but could not be captured and rescued.

"I'm glad she's alive," Watanabe said. "But it's very sad. She's 23 years old."

___

Associated Press Writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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By the Numbers: 2011 tornado season (AP)

Figures about the tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday and the 2011 tornado season. All statistics represent the official record of the National Weather Service, which covers 1950 to present day.

JOPLIN TORNADO

• People killed: 125.

• Survivors rescued: 9.

• Injured: More than 900.

• Buildings destroyed: An estimated 8,000.

• About the tornado: Deadliest single tornado since records began in 1950. Storm Prediction Center says unofficial records show last single tornado with greater death toll occurred in 1947. National Weather Service rated the storm an EF5, the highest rating based on inflicted damage. Winds exceeded 200 mph.

TORNADO COUNT

• Tornadoes to strike Joplin: 1.

• Tornado reports made so far in the U.S. in May: 187, through May 24.

• Average number of tornadoes in May during the past decade: 298.

• Record for tornadoes in May: 542, in 2003.

• Tornado reports made so far in 2011: 1,228, through May 24.

• Average number of tornadoes in a single year during the past decade: 1,274.

• Highest recorded number of tornadoes in a single year: 1,817, in 2004.

DEATH TOLL

• People killed in Joplin tornado: 125.

• People killed in 2011 prior to Joplin tornado: 365.

• People killed in 2011: 505, through morning of May 25.

• Highest recorded death toll in a single year: 519, in 1953.

• People killed in Oklahoma from storms this week: 9

• People killed in Kansas: 2

• People killed in Arkansas: 4

Source: Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr; National Weather Service; Storm Prediction Center preliminary tornado data; FEMA.


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Tropical Storm Chedeng Upgraded to Typhoon as it Heads Toward Philippines (ContributorNetwork)

While many people in the United States are focused on the devastation caused by a series of tornadoes that leveled Joplin, Mo., and wreaked havoc through parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas, tropical storm Chedeng continues to strand passengers in the Philippines. The tropical storm was upgraded to a typhoon by the Philippine Coast Guard today.

A little more than 3,600 people remain stranded at various places throughout the Bicol Region. The Bicol Region, along with several other provinces, including Catanduanes, Albay and Samar, among others, are under a more severe storm warning, signal No. 2, than other areas of the country. Much of the rest of the country, including Masbate, Marinduque, and Southern Quezon, is under the lesser public storm warning No. 1.

The Philippines capital of Manila was put on "blue alert" today. That means 60 percent of their available emergency and rescue workers are to be ready for "immediate response" if they are needed, with more to follow if necessary. A blue alert is the second-highest alert level as identified by the Metro Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (MMDRRC) and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

In other areas that are known to be prone to flooding and landslides, measures are being taken to ensure the safety of all residents. The governor of Albay province ordered military vehicles to move the more than 200,000 residents of Legazpi City and surrounding areas to safe ground, fearing the potentially devastating consequences if people were not evacuated promptly.

By late afternoon today, the Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) had issued warnings that Chedeng had begun to move significantly faster. It was subsequently spotted a little more than 310 miles off the coast of Northern Samar, moving eastward.

U.S. military weather forecasters have issued their own warnings to the Philippines as well. They are predicting that along with its accelerated pace, Typhoon Chedeng is also very likely to become stronger as it heads towards land. They cited " favorable oceanographic conditions " for their estimates.


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Forecasts, TV and luck eased tornado risk in Okla. (AP)

By KRISTI EATON and CHUCK BARTELS, Associated Press Kristi Eaton And Chuck Bartels, Associated Press – Wed May 25, 9:36 pm ET

PIEDMONT, Okla. – When three tornadoes marched toward Oklahoma City and its suburbs, thousands of people in the path benefited from good forecasts, luck and live television to avoid the kind of catastrophe that befell Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.

Although at least 15 people died in the latest round of violent weather that started Tuesday, schools and offices closed early, giving many families plenty of time to take shelter. And even stragglers were able to get to safety at the last minute because TV forecasters narrated the twisters' every turn.

"We live in Oklahoma and we don't mess around," Lori Jenkins of Guthrie said after emerging from a neighbor's storm shelter to find her carport crumpled and her home damaged.

The people of Oklahoma City, which has been struck by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city, knew the storms were coming. Anxiety was perhaps running higher than usual Tuesday after last month's twister outbreak in the South that killed more than 300 people and a Sunday storm that killed at least 125 in Joplin, Mo.

The Oklahoma twisters proved to be weaker than the other tornadoes. But the minute-by-minute accounts of the developing weather helped thousands of people stay abreast of the danger.

Television helicopters broadcast live footage while the system approached the metropolitan area of 1.2 million people — calling out to specific communities like Piedmont to "Take cover now!"

In Guthrie, about 30 miles north of the capital city, Ron Brooks was watching when he learned that a tornado was barreling toward him. He heeded the weatherman's warning, scooped up his two children and took cover with his wife in their laundry room.

"When they told us to get into the shelter or interior room, we did that," Brooks said. "The first year I moved to Oklahoma, in 1997, I saw a funnel drop out of a wall cloud. Since seeing one, I've always taken it pretty seriously." He emerged 20 minutes later, relieved to learn that the tornado passed just north of his home.

Another line of severe storms swept through the nation's midsection Wednesday, mainly east of Oklahoma. A tornado warning was briefly issued for downtown Kansas City, Mo., and at least two weak tornadoes touched down in or near the suburbs.

A few others were reported in Illinois. The storms moved later into Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In Joplin, the city manager said Wednesday that 125 people had died in the storm, raising by three the toll of the nation's deadliest single tornado since 1950. He said more than 900 people had been injured.

Rescue and recovery work continued, with crews repeating grid searches for any survivors who might still be buried in rubble. Structural engineers were sent inside the ruins of St. John's Medical Center, which was crippled by the twister, to see if the hospital could be saved.

Back in the Oklahoma City area, at least nine people were killed, despite broadcasters offering live coverage of the storms for two hours before the bad weather actually hit around the evening rush hour.

Across the border in Arkansas, people in the tiny hamlet of Denning didn't have the luxury of an early warning. A tornado killed at least one person there. Storms left three others dead elsewhere in Arkansas and killed two in Kansas.

The storms arrived in Denning in the darkness, with a warning posted only about 10 minutes before a tornado nearly obliterated the town of 270 shortly after midnight.

Troy Ellison didn't even have that much time.

He was watching a movie in his mobile home when he switched on the TV news. The tornado was four minutes away.

"We were going to take the work truck and get out," Ellison said. "I looked out the back door with my son and it was coming."

He dove under the kitchen table with his wife and two sons just before the tornado hit. "It got that growling sound and the windows popped," he said.

The tornado ripped the roof off his home and collapsed his workshop next door. Somehow, the family escaped unharmed.

Then Ellison went outside and saw the family dog, Jager, his paws splayed out on the ground. The animal "looked like someone stepped on him." Ellison assumed he was dead.

But the dog, a pit bull-boxer mix, turned out to be fine. By Wednesday, he was prancing around in the sun as the Ellisons moved belongings out of their home.

"He must have known to stay low to the ground," Ellison said.

Oklahoma City has been hit by tornadoes 146 times, according to the federal government's Storm Prediction Center. That history brings respect for severe storms and a simple rule for people who find themselves in a twister's path: Get out of the way or get underground.

"I think Oklahomans, simply because we're around it so much, take very seriously the threat of severe weather. It's something we live with year-round," said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management. "We have a genuine respect for the severe weather here."

Part of that comes from learning to deal with bad weather at a young age, Ooten said.

The long track of the storm in Piedmont gave Lynn Hartman's family time to take shelter and then run away. As warning sirens sounded, Hartman said, she huddled in the pantry of her Piedmont home with her two children and the family dog until her husband arrived home from work.

"We're there just crying and praying," Hartman said, and her daughter, Sierra, 10, was saying repeatedly, "I just don't want to die."

The family then decided to flee as the storm drew closer. They crossed the Oklahoma City area to Shawnee. Once there, sirens sounded again for a storm approaching from the south. The four drove around for three hours before returning to find their roof gone. The pantry was standing, but Hartman was not convinced the family would have survived.

Ooten said trying to outrun a tornado is dangerous.

"Find the sturdiest building you can gain access to," she said. "Unless you're an expert, I wouldn't try to outrun a tornado. You're not in charge. Mother Nature is the one in charge."

___

Bartels reported from Denning, Ark.


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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thousands evacuate as typhoon skirts Philippines (AP)

MANILA, Philippines – Thousands of people along the eastern Philippine coastline were moving to temporary shelters Thursday as a powerful typhoon packing strong winds and plenty of rain roared toward the country's northeast.

Typhoon Songda was not expected to make landfall but will skirt along shores with winds of up to 93 miles (150 kilometers) per hour and rainfall of 1.2 inches (30 millimeters), the government weather bureau said.

"It has a big radius, so it can affect many areas even if it does not make landfall," said forecaster Mario Palafox.

About 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year, killing hundreds of people and destroying crops despite government efforts to minimize casualties and damage by ordering early evacuations.

In central Albay province, Gov. Joey Salceda sent military trucks to begin moving 250,000 residents from coastal and landslide-prone villages and areas in the path of debris from the Mayon volcano. He also offered 11 pounds (five kilograms) of rice as an incentive for each family that evacuates.

Government offices in the region were closed and flights canceled. More than 7,000 people were stranded in ports after the coast guard barred sea travel in areas with typhoon warnings.

In other provinces leading up to the northwest, officials have collected rubber boats and food supplies and put rescuers on standby.

"Local government officials have enough time to prepare, so we hope we have" no casualties, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

President Benigno Aquino III left on a visit to Thailand on Thursday but instructed officials to send him regular updates.


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Body found of toddler missing in Joplin tornado (AP)

JOPLIN, Mo. – Authorities have identified the body of a toddler whose disappearance in the Joplin tornado drew an outpouring of concern when it was posted on Facebook.

His mother, Carol Jo Tate, told The Associated Press Wednesday that the body of 16-month-old Skyular Logsdon was identified at the morgue handling tornado victims.

More than 10,000 people supported a "Bring Skyular Logsdon home" page set up after the boy vanished in Sunday's tornado.

Tate, 18, remains hospitalized with severe injuries at Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg, Kan.


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AP Enterprise: Tornado victims often uninsured (AP)

By MIKE SCHNEIDER and HARRY R. WEBER, Associated Press Mike Schneider And Harry R. Weber, Associated Press – 1 hr 26 mins ago

ATLANTA – Many of the states hammered by what's already the deadliest year for tornadoes in more than half a century have among the nation's highest rates of homes without hazard insurance despite being among the most twister-prone, data analyzed by The Associated Press shows.

That means the regions that most need the insurance are often the exact places that don't have much of it. It also means many tornado victims may have a hard time getting compensated for their losses, putting more pressure on the federal government to help even though its assistance is limited by law.

With more than 450 deaths and billions of dollars in damage in the past month alone, regulators are calling for more education about the importance of homeowners insurance and further efforts to make it affordable and available to all. But whether to buy it is still considered a personal choice and there's no push to mandate it federally.

The fallout is on stark display in Mississippi and Arkansas, two of seven Southern states battered last month by twisters. Mississippi ranks second in the nation for the percentage of homes without insurance covering wind damage yet fourth on the list of states that have had the most tornadoes touch down in the past five years. Arkansas ranks fourth for uninsured homes and 10th for being tornado prone, according to the AP's analysis.

Missouri, site of Sunday's tornado outbreak with at least 125 dead, falls somewhere in the middle on hazard insurance despite being the fourth most tornado-prone state. Kansas and Oklahoma, the sites of deadly tornadoes Tuesday, also fall in the middle and rank No. 2 and No. 6 on the list of most tornado-prone states.

States with the highest rates of uninsured homeowners also tend to have a higher incidence of homes without mortgages, meaning owners don't have to answer to banks requiring coverage. The uninsured can turn to aid groups and the federal government for relief — but often not for full compensation.

Poverty and an abundance of older homes that can be difficult to insure contribute to high rates of no insurance. In tough economic times, the temptation to forgo insurance is real.

Tammy and Kevin Cudy of Joplin, Mo., dropped their homeowner's policy, and its $50-a-month premiums, last August after Kevin lost his construction job. They considered reinstating their policy within the past week but said they were unable to reach their insurance agent by telephone.

And then the deadliest single tornado in nearly six decades demolished their five-bedroom home Sunday.

"That's why I'm kicking myself right now," said Tammy Cudy, 47. "The fact that we were thinking about it, that we needed to work our budget around it, it just makes you kind of heart-sick at this point."

Many people don't qualify for insurance if their homes are in high-risk areas, or they have trouble affording a policy to cover wind damage because of high costs associated with home value, aging construction and building codes, Arkansas Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said.

"The loss ratios on those houses that are insured are generally pretty high," Bradford said. "They don't have central heat and air. They are older homes. Sometimes, the plumbing and wiring are not up to standard. The rates are higher, and the coverage is limited."

Bradford is among regulators calling for more education and strategies to make insurance more affordable. Yet he opposes a mandate, as do two lawmakers from tornado zones contacted by phone: Rep. Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat, and Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a Mississippi Republican.

Nancy and Homer Davis weren't protected for the worst.

Tight finances kept them from buying a policy on the 80-foot-by-14-foot trailer they purchased eight years ago for $10,000. Homer Davis is on disability and Nancy Davis works part-time at a Lowe's home improvement store. One of last month's twisters lifted their trailer off the ground near Pheba, Miss., smashed it against trees and disgorged their household belongings into a ditch.

"I'm trying to figure out, `Where does my money go?' He's on disability and I'm working part-time," said Davis, 51. "It's just trying to figure out what's the best way to spend your money. You say to yourself, `As soon as I'm ready, I'm going to get insurance on the house.'"

Nationally, roughly 4 percent of owner-occupied homes lack homeowners, or hazard, insurance, according to the latest industry estimates. But the numbers vary substantially by region.

The South has the highest rate of homes without hazard insurance, at 17.4 percent, according to the AP analysis. This is followed by the Northeast at 12.2 percent, the Midwest at 8.4 percent and the West at 3.3 percent.

The highest death toll from tornadoes in the past month was in Alabama, which is at the national average for homes without insurance and ranks third for frequency of tornadoes. North Dakota tops the uninsured list and ranks 16th on the tornado-prone list.

Louisiana, another state hit by the April 27 tornado outbreak in the South, ranks 11th in both categories.

The AP analyzed data compiled by the Insurance Information Institute and the U.S. Census Bureau. AP relied on 2008 figures because those were the most recent for which comparisons could be made, and it's unlikely the numbers would have fluctuated much in the past three years, said industry expert Robert P. Hartwig.

About 30 percent of owner-occupied homes in Arkansas and Mississippi lack hazard insurance policies, according to the AP analysis, which reviewed data from all 50 states except Florida, where data was incomplete. In Louisiana, about 17 percent are uninsured. The rate is roughly 10.5 percent in Missouri. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee all are close to the national average of 4 percent.

Some of the states hit by last month's tornadoes have average insurance premiums well above the national average of $791 a year. Louisiana's average annual premium is $1,155 and Mississippi's is $980. Alabama's average premium is $845, as is Minnesota's. Arkansas' and Missouri's are $788, roughly at the national average.

By law, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide up to $30,300 in grants for home repairs, rental assistance and other disaster-related losses in presidentially declared disaster areas. But that may not cover the cost to rebuild. Insured homeowners can still qualify for FEMA aid, but the assistance is reduced by the amount of the insurance settlement.

Tom and Tammy Priola hope FEMA covers the cost of rebuilding a new house after they lost their 100-year-old home in suburban Birmingham to the tornadoes. Their house is valued at $73,000, more than double FEMA's limit. Inspectors had deemed it too old and risky for coverage so they never purchased homeowners' insurance.

"It's so hard to make plans that you can really follow right now," said Priola, an electrician. "We're in a daze kind of deal."

Homeowners also may be eligible for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. Unlike the FEMA program, the SBA money must be repaid, and if the loan is over a certain amount the agency will take a lien against the property until the money is repaid.

FEMA has already registered more than 100,000 individuals and families in the tornado-affected states for assistance and approved tens of millions of dollars for individual assistance to cover temporary housing, home repairs and other needs.

According to Census data, Mississippi and Arkansas have higher-than-usual rates of homes without mortgages — about 41 percent of owner-occupied homes in Arkansas and 43 percent in Mississippi. The national average is under a third of all owner-occupied homes. Missouri stands at about the national average. In many cases, homeowners have inherited their homes and don't need a mortgage which would require insurance, said Larry Cox, a University of Mississippi professor who heads the school's insurance and risk management program.

"It's come down from grandparents, great grandparents, and they never bothered to insure it," Cox said. He added, "I think the general public finds insurance complex, confusing, something they don't want to think about."

___

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Pleasant Grove. Ala., and David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., contributed to this report.

___

Follow Mike Schneider, who reported from Orlando, Fla., at http://www.twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP. Follow Harry R. Weber at http://www.facebook.com/HarryRWeberAP.


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Oklahoma Weather: Our Brush with a Tornado (ContributorNetwork)

The day began like any other. I had finally enlisted the help of my son in doing some yard work. He had hand built lattice for our porch. The goal was to have it entirely enclosed before summer so that I could enjoy the space with shade. I had imagined filling it with plants and having a more tropical feel. Such was not to be.

Within an hour or so of my beautiful sunny Oklahoma day, the skies began the transformation into the all too familiar pre-rain look. My son, perked up immediately. I imagine he thought his work day would soon be over with a legitimate excuse of inclement weather. The temperature began to drop from the wonderful 80 plus degrees. "That is too rapid for a regular thunderstorm," I thought. Living in Oklahoma as long as we have, we were well versed in the signs of tornado watching.

I gathered my gardening supplies and then turned on our Stormwatch radio. I was right. The news from the "Forewarn Team" confirmed this was a tornado watch. My son, with much glee, came inside, plopped in front of the television to watch some mindless show. As soon as he was comfortable, the weather alert broke in. My son was visibly annoyed that he still might have work to do.

I was increasingly concerned as the weatherman listed the sightings of wall clouds and formations in "tornado-speak" that were locations that I knew too well. The listings began generally -- Canadian County, west Oklahoma County. Then more specific and closer -- Piedmont, El Reno, Chickasaw.

The storm chasers were out in full force. David Payne held me in rapt attention as he described the scene along Interstate 40 and 281 Highway. We saw the wall clouds, the circular motions beginning, then the raindrops becoming larger as the sky darkened.

First one funnel formed, then another, and another -- unprecedented. I had never seen the formation so rapidly. Two of the funnels touched down, then two more. And then they did something that I had never witnessed. The funnels moved closer together forming a half-mile wedge. We could hear the sound of a train in the distance. The weatherman broke in with new location updates- May and Hefner Road, Council Road, Rockwell. The tornadoes were forming miles from my home.

"Get the dogs," was all I could force out. My son and husband, both Eagle Scouts, were already into action with preparations. Pillows and blankets were gathered. Flashlights, extra batteries, water and my luxury items -- crochet work and a book. We were ready to go underground.

The radio blared the specifics of the tornadoes. 215 mph winds had been measured. This was another F5 heading directly toward the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. More sightings of funnels forming south of my home actually frightened me. The weather sirens were deafening. My cell phone erupted with messages from family and friends across the country asking if we were okay. For the first time, I wondered if I could get cell reception in the storm shelter.

And then the rains came. Hard, pounding, huge drops fell. Wind speed picked up and I saw the work on my porch disappear. The doghouse moved a few inches, trees bent against the harshness of the wind. But the skies were lighter than before! Whatever plans Mother Nature had for my neighborhood were changed at the last minute. The downpour lightened to a thunderstorm. The weatherman announced that the tornadoes had changed direction and were moving towards Edmond. We had been spared.


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Tornado death toll rises, no more survivors found (Reuters)

JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) – The death toll from a monster tornado that savaged Joplin, Missouri, rose to 125 on Wednesday and tornadoes overnight in nearby states caused at least 15 more deaths.

Three days after the deadliest single tornado in the United States in 64 years, rescue teams with dogs sifted through rubble in Joplin without finding anyone alive on Wednesday.

Authorities said the operation was still a search and rescue, but hope of finding more people alive was fading.

The number of people injured by the massive tornado was revised up to more than 900, according to local authorities, from 823 earlier in the day.

Officials were no longer saying how many people are missing because they believe the figure of 1,500 missing mentioned earlier in the week was inflated by double counting or people simply being out of town.

Some families continued a desperate search for missing loved ones amid the ruins of homes and businesses.

Fifteen-month-old Skyular Logsdon, whose blue teddy bear, red t-shirt and pants were found wrapped around a telephone pole after the storm, remains missing, his great grandmother told Reuters on Wednesday.

His injured parents were found and taken to a hospital after the tornado. But the little boy has vanished.

"We're still hopeful," said Deb Cummins, great grandmother of the missing boy. She said they have checked every possible hospital.

Another wave of tornadoes roared across the Midwest on Tuesday night, leaving nine dead in Oklahoma, four fatalities in Arkansas and two in Kansas, officials said.

In Newcastle, south of Oklahoma City, a storm blew the steeple off Jesus Alive Church and carried it nearly 100 yards away, where it landed on the doorstep of the longtime pastor's 86-year-old mother, Lovina Frizzell.

"I said 'Oh, my goodness, there's the steeple,'" Frizzell said as she swept her front porch.

In Oklahoma alone, seven tornadoes tore across the state overnight, according to the National Weather Service. The deadliest of those, which killed seven persons, left a 75-mile path of destruction and lasted two hours.

Oklahoma authorities said a 22-year-old man died in hospital of injuries from the storm, bringing the death toll in the state to nine.

Severe weather was continuing on Wednesday evening further east in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and north into Illinois and Indiana, although winds so far were not as threatening as on Tuesday night, according to meteorologists.

One funnel cloud struck Sedalia, Missouri, a town of 20,000 residents, on Wednesday afternoon, damaging homes and businesses, overturning vehicles, downing power lines and rupturing gas lines, emergency officials said.

Nervous Joplin residents were relieved after the threat of another tornado heading for the city proved to be false overnight.

The Joplin tornado on Sunday was rated an EF-5, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, with winds of at least 200 miles per hour.

EF-5 tornadoes are rare in the United States but already this year there have been at least four. They are so destructive that experts said they can turn a house into a missile.

Authorities in Joplin struggled to cope with the massive destruction. Some 14,000 customers in the city of 50,000 were still without power, water pressure was low in many homes and a local cable and cellphone provider had only about 20 percent of its customers back up and running normally.

A system of permits to allow residents back to their damaged homes and prevent looting was abandoned on Wednesday as long lines formed. Officials decided instead to keep a strong police and National Guard presence while allowing people free access to the miles of damaged neighborhoods.

This year has seen an unusually high number of tornadoes, with 1,168 as of May 22, compared to an average of about 671 by this time, according to Joshua Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The U.S. is on pace to break the record for deaths from tornadoes this season, the National Weather Service has said.

(Writing by Carey Gillam and Greg McCune; Additional reporting by Suzi Parker, Steve Olafson, and Kevin Murphy; Editing by Peter Bohan)


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Traumatized Joplin on edge as more storms rake Missouri (Reuters)

JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) – Traumatized residents kept a wary eye on storm clouds hanging on Wednesday over the shredded remains of a large portion of this city.

Chainsaws and hammering could be heard in the neighborhoods surrounding the hardest hit areas three days after a devastating tornado ripped through this town of 50,000, killing 125 and injuring at least 823.

Residents took advantage of hours of sunlight to check their property and clear debris. But as adrenaline and shock faded, residents near the damaged zone described a fear of every rumbling in the wind.

Overnight, another wave of killer tornadoes roared across the Midwest, leaving at least nine people dead in Oklahoma, four dead in Arkansas and two in Kansas, officials said.

And on Wednesday, several fast-moving, strong storms raked Missouri, triggering tornado warnings all across the state.

Jerry Harris rode out 200 miles-per-hour winds with his daughter in a closet in his friend's homes, which was all that remained of the residence after the storm passed.

The 42-year-old had years of training as a 911 dispatcher, he said, but felt panic the next morning when he heard the rumbling of a heavy truck.

"It just scared me to death," Harris said.

Now, he is obsessed with having all his children around during storm warnings to assure himself they are safe.

Rick Rice, a 57-year-old truck driver, said he would never again dismiss the sirens he ignored Sunday. He had continued to remodel his bathroom as the tornado approached. The storm left his home uninhabitable.

Now he spends his day monitoring the Internet for weather updates haunted by the roaring of the wind.

"When I hear the noise, I can't get it out of my mind," Rice said.

Even residents who missed the worst of the storm changed habits. Greg Salzer, a 37-year-old social worker, watched the tornado from a safe distance. He and his wife restocked their storm shelter the next day with shoes, important papers and dog leashes.

"We spent Monday going through the storm shelter cleaning," he said.

On Wednesday, he was helping his uncle, 66-year-old Frederick Dalton, clean debris not far from a ruined hospital.

Dalton said he had walked for blocks after the storm to find his wife safe at a destroyed church.

The Joplin tornado on Sunday was rated an EF-5, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, with winds of at least 200 miles per hour.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher)


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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Search for tornado's missing finds few amid debris (AP)

By NOMAAN MERCHANT, JIM SALTER and ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press Nomaan Merchant, Jim Salter And Alan Scher Zagier, Associated Press – 1 hr 40 mins ago

JOPLIN, Mo. – Mike Hare has scoured the ravaged neighborhood where his 16-year-old son Lantz was seen last. He's called hospitals from Dallas to Kansas City and taken dozens of calls offering advice, prayers and hopeful tips.

None of the calls came from Lantz. None offered any hope he might still be alive.

Hare has been looking for his son since Sunday, when much of the southwest Missouri city of Joplin was leveled by a tornado that now ranks as the nation's single deadliest tornado since the National Weather Service started keeping records.

"We know he's hurt somewhere," Hare said Wednesday, his voice breaking. "We just can't sit and keep calling. You've got to be moving."

Hare is among an increasingly desperate group of people in Joplin pleading for help in tracking down one of the dwindling number of people still missing in the wake of Sunday's storm. They're scrawling signs in wreckage, calling in by the hundreds to local radio stations and posting on the Internet. They are inspiring city officials to continue search and rescue efforts, yet there is no talk yet of recovery.

Officials planned to release a list Thursday morning of people still considered missing.

"I am hopeful," Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles said. "We've had stories from earthquakes and tsunamis and other disasters of people being found two or three weeks later, and we are hopeful we'll have a story like that to tell."

Randles and others leading the search effort say it's impossible to know exactly how many people are truly missing, since many may have simply left the area without getting in touch with their families. They believe most will be OK.

Amid that confusion, away from formal grid searches in the debris fields, children are looking for their parents and friends are searching for neighbors in any way they can.

With erratic cell phone service throughout Joplin and travel hindered by damaged cars and blocked streets, many residents have turned to local radio stations as a hub of information, sifting through around-the-clock reports of missing family members.

The Zimmer Radio Group, which operates seven radio stations in Joplin, abandoned its various music formats for 24-hour tornado coverage starting late Sunday afternoon. Newscaster Chad Elliot, whose home was destroyed, slept in his office when he wasn't on the air. His dog Rusty barked loudly behind a closed door.

"I thought we were going to do a normal severe weather broadcast," he said. "Obviously, that's not the case."

Calls flowed in — hundreds of them — from people looking for displaced loved ones, or calling in to say they were OK. By Wednesday, reports of missing friends and relatives were decreasing, replaced by updates of successful, tearful reunions.

"Folks wondering about Larry Allen, who was living near the Stained Glass Theater, he is fine," an announcer said Wednesday afternoon. "He's staying with friends."

Another listener reported, "I want everyone to know that Alice DuBois, 94 years old, is alive and well. We hadn't heard from her until yesterday afternoon. We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers."

Pleas were rampant on social networks.

"This little boy was taken to Memorial Hall," one poster wrote next to a picture posted on KRGZ-FM's Facebook page. "His name is David and all he know's is that his mother's name is Crystal and his brother is Zachary. He was airlifted to Tulsa. Please help find his mom."

Other cries for help were low-tech: A tornado-battered pickup truck was spray-painted with the message, "Looking 4 Zachary Williams Age 12," along with a phone number.

At the Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University, a steady stream of people visited a table where Bill Benson took down the names of people for a "safe and well" database. Some people entered their names; others hoped to find the name of their loved ones in the database.

Benson has seen parents looking for missing children, saying "we had one where a 17-month-old infant was lost." He contacted police and had not heard if the child was found. But more people have come to Benson searching for seniors — more than 100 were listed as missing Wednesday.

At Freeman Hospital, Karen Mitchell waited Wednesday hoping for word on her missing son, Robert Bateson, or her grandson, Abe Khoury. Khoury was found and taken to Freeman, where he was in critical condition. But Mitchell and her family continued to search for Bateson.

When she arrived in Joplin on Tuesday, Mitchell walked through the wreckage of her son's apartment building. She recognized his mattress sitting in a pile. Her family continued to post Bateson's information online. She prayed for a miracle.

"I am waiting on God to tell me where he's at," she said. "God is going to take him to me."

Kathy Watson, a marketing team member and front desk volunteer at Freeman, said the hospital was deluged with calls and visits from searchers, sometimes in vain.

"You want to be able to say, `Not only do we have your loved one, but they're fine,' but you can't say that," Watson said.

The evening of the tornado, Lantz Hare was driving with a friend who said the two tried to take cover in the parking lot of a grocery store. The tornado shattered the windows and crumpled the car, and Mike Hare found Lantz's backpack in the wreckage.

He said he would keep searching until he found his son, dead or alive.

"If you look at the ground, life will pass you by," he said. "I won't let life pass me by."


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Japan opposition eyes no-confidence motion (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan's biggest opposition party plans to submit a no-confidence motion to parliament, its leader said on Thursday, piling pressure on unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan as he struggles with a crisis at a tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant.

It remains unclear if a motion against Kan's government would gain enough support from other groups, including rebels in his own Democratic Party (DPJ), to force the prime minister to resign or call a snap election.

But even if Kan manages to stay in power longer than his four predecessors, who were gone in about a year or less, the chances of progress toward fixing the ills of the world's third largest economy seem slim.

"It's hard to imagine a scenario that would result in the things that need to be done getting done," said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.

Dumping unpopular leaders has become an annual ritual in Japan.

Kan, sworn in last June, is already Japan's fifth prime minister in as many years and the second since his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power for the first time in 2009, promising to change how the country is governed after more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democrats.

"A no-confidence motion is the biggest weapon of an opposition party ... and we have a responsibility to submit one since it is such a problematic government," LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki told a news conference. He stopped short of saying exactly when the motion would be submitted.

Already unpopular before a March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Kan has been criticized for his handling of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima nuclear plant, where three reactors damaged in the disaster suffered meltdown. His ratings are hovering below 30 percent.

TWO-FRONT BATTLE

Kan will be fighting on two fronts when he returns on Sunday from a trip to Europe.

The LDP and its erstwhile partner, the smaller New Komeito Party, are eager to return to power. Kan's rivals in his own party dislike his sometimes abrasive style and are irritated by his policy shift away from campaign pledges to spend more money on supporting households. They also fear Kan's poor ratings will scuttle their chances at the next election, due by 2013.

The LDP generally recognizes the need for social security and tax reforms, including a rise in the 5 percent sales tax, that Kan proposes.

"They agree on what they should do, but they disagree on who should do it," said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Analysts and political insiders said it was still a big question whether the LDP could win over enough disaffected Democrats for the no-confidence motion to pass. About 75 out of more than 300 Democrats would have to defect to pass the motion.

Kan could call a lower house election if a no-confidence motion were to pass, but that would risk a backlash from voters who want politicians to concentrate on the nuclear crisis and on rebuilding northeast Japan, where the quake and tsunami left 25,000 dead or presumed dead and devastated the region. Tens of thousands of people are still living in evacuations centers.

Nor is it clear who would replace Kan if he were to quit.

Among the names floated are Tanigaki, a former finance minister who lacks an image as a strong leader, or a DPJ elder such as 79-year-old Kozo Watanabe, who might head a new coalition until a general election next year.

If Kan survives a no-confidence motion, his job could still be threatened if opposition parties -- who control parliament's upper house and can block bills -- refuse to back a bill to allow the government to issue bonds needed to fund 44 percent of a record $1 trillion budget for the year from April.

The government could probably avoid a shut-down even without approval by the end of June, but the resulting delay in spending would dampen recovery from March 11 disasters, estimated to have caused as much as $300 billion in damages.

Kan is also struggling to find ways to fund the rebuilding of the quake-hit areas, Japan's biggest reconstruction project since the end of World War Two, while keeping in check public debt that is already twice the size of its $5 trillion economy.

A second extra budget, is likely to be submitted to parliament around August and many experts say Japan's only option is to finance it with a combination of higher taxes and more borrowing.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson)


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Street market bonds tsunami-hit community in Japan (AP)

OFUNATO, Japan – The irreverent back-and-forth starts almost immediately when sellers arrive at the morning market around 6 a.m.

"You're not supposed to gain weight, we're in a disaster!"

"At least that tsunami finally gave me a bath!"

Sakariki-machi market has survived for more than two centuries in this coastal Japanese town, through natural disaster and war, not to mention the advent of 7-11s and discount chains. Now, in its small but time-tested way, it is helping to keep up morale in an area devastated by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami that flattened a vast swath of Japan's northeast coast.

"This is so important to us," says 71-year-old Chioko Shomoto, sitting behind a small pile of mountain vegetables she and three elderly friends gathered by hand. "It's not really about how much we sell. This is where we relax and talk and trade information."

The market only opens once every five days along a single narrow street, regardless of the weather or what day of the week it is. It is soon filled with a colorful motley of bright flowers in pots, hand-sewn clothing, fresh fish and vegetables, the prices scrawled on small scraps of paper.

The lively scene harkens back to an earlier time, before Facebook and Twitter, before convenience stores with automatic doors and barcode scanners.

It is a real-world social network, a web of friendships forged through decades of early mornings and bad jokes. For some who lost their shops in the tsunami, it also is a place to rent a spot on the pavement for 300 yen ($3.70) and sell a few items to help make ends meet.

"I thought it would be months before people came back. But 20 days later, they just naturally started showing up again," says Yoshihiro Suzuki, 63, whose family has run the market for at least four generations. "The market gives people strength to go on with their lives."

The market opened more than 200 years ago, when Japan was still under shogun rule. It started as a place for fishermen and farmers to barter and trade, says Suzuki, whose great-grandfather registered it as a legal entity in 1912.

The market has lasted through previous calamities, including an 1896 tsunami that wiped out a third of the city's population and the death and destruction of World War II.

The powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11 killed more than 25,000 people and wiped out entire neighborhoods and downtowns.

"I was pretty down after the tsunami, I really thought about giving up and closing the business," says 70 year-old Hiroshi Sato, a fabric seller who lost his home in Kesennuma, about an hour's drive south. "But I heard that people at the market were asking about me, so I started coming again."

He later accepts a gift of fresh potatoes from the vegetable vendor next door.

It's clear from the laughter and banter that many sellers don't take selling very seriously. Sato and others leave their stalls unattended as they wander around and exchange greetings.

For a few, though, the market has become a crucial source of income. Kenji Murakami, who lost his plant shop and his home, stands behind a leafy wall of potted flowers, small trees and other plants in a prime spot where the market borders a larger street.

"It's not enough to live on, but I make 60 to 70 percent of what I need here now," says the 62-year-old, who has been coming for 25 years.

The prices and selection may be better at the large supermarket a block away, but some continue to patronize the market.

"I've been coming here since I was a little girl," says Naoko Nagayama, 40, shopping with her husband and two daughters. "I know the older ladies, and they always take a bit off the price for me."

Most of the vendors are elderly, longtime veterans. Some say the same sense of community that drives the market makes it hard for newcomers to break in.

Tadamasa Yokoda, 57, has been hawking shoes at the market for 35 years. The tsunami destroyed his shop nearby and ruined his home, and he greets his old friends in front of a small truck jammed with sneakers, loafers, and slippers.

"It's great because you don't need to rent a shop or anything, it's very easy to get set up," he says. "But new people don't really come."


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Gawkers, Opportunists Descend on North Minneapolis After Tornado (ContributorNetwork)

COMMENTARY | NORTH MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to the carnival of destruction. Come one, come all, come revel at Mother Nature's ability to bring the most feared area of Minneapolis to it knees, begging for forgiveness.

Last night, Mother Nature sent the struggling people of North Minneapolis a curve ball in our already tough lives. A tornado touched down "over north," as we affectionately call our neighborhood, and rain is in the forecast to further worsen things. Most of us in North Minneapolis are having a hard enough time struggling with neighborhood drug dealers, burglars and murderers roaming free. Now we must contend with the area becoming a media circus, the storm chasers coming to exploit us, and the gawkers who come to see us in our misery.

North Minneapolis is know as the crime center of Minneapolis. People typically avoid this area, and most are afraid to even drive through. The media rarely pay any attention to this neighborhood and our struggle against, murder, drugs and robbery. Someone is murdered in North Minneapolis nearly every week and only about half of those cases are ever solved. You would never know that judging from the local news coverage of these murders.

Now that a tornado has ripped the lives of our neighborhood apart we can't keep the media out. The news channels can't wait to let all the good suburbanites know how this tornado could have happen to them. People only seem to care when they can feel the fear themselves. When its us killing each other and overdosing on drugs, that's not their problem, that couldn't happen to them. But a tornado in North Minneapolis -- that's real; it could happen anywhere.

Coupled with the media, we have storm chasers coming to exploit our misery from this tornado. Theses pieces of human scum have come to make sure our local carpenters, roofers, and contractors don't get all the insurance jobs. Our neighborhood is filled with capable construction workers but the home owners are struggling and will give the work to whatever slick talking storm chaser offers them the most cash back on their insurance job from the Minneapolis tornado. Storm chasers are taking jobs that belong to our community and distributing them out to people that need them a lot less.

Even with all the people coming to North Minneapolis to exploit us, I think there is one group that bothers me even more, the gawkers. Most of theses people wouldn't dare step foot, or even drive through North Minneapolis. But after a tornado, they can't help to come stare with shock and amazement at the unfortunate souls living in North Minneapolis. Cars are lined up for blocks just to take a peek at us or snap a photo. These people have come to entertain themselves with our struggles, not to stay and help relive us of it. Let me save you some time, here is some pictures of tornado damage from my block in North Minneapolis, feel free to stay off of it, now that you have seen it.


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Grim search in tornado-hit US town as storms gather (AFP)

JOPLIN, Missouri (AFP) – Rescue crews clawed through the rubble searching for survivors early Tuesday after a tornado in Missouri killed 116 people, amid warnings that more powerful storms were on the way.

"That's all that's left," Roger Dedick said on Monday as he pointed to a section of foundation, the remains of his home of 17 years in Joplin after the deadliest single tornado in six decades ripped through the town.

He had had to use a metal bar to pry himself out of his crushed home.

Down the street, Carolyn Hall fought back tears as she and her teenage sons combed their destroyed home hoping to find some clothes and the family cat.

Only a few interior walls remained standing, but after a desperate search came a ray of hope when they found the terrified cat hiding under a bed.

Around the corner, Dottie and Tim Sumners had uncovered scores of framed photos and albums, memories that survived when the massive mile-wide tornado, with winds of up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour hit late Sunday.

"I'll never disregard the sirens again," said Dottie Sumners.

Her husband looked on grimly at the scenes of devastation, and said they would rebuild their home of 33 years. "We'll make it," he said.

More than 2,000 buildings -- or about a third of the city of 50,000 near the border with Kansas and Oklahoma -- were damaged or destroyed, when the twister came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.

The Joplin tornado is on course to be the deadliest single twister to strike the United States since modern record keeping began in 1950 -- matching the toll in a tornado in Flint, Michigan in 1953 that also left 116 people dead.

A single twister in 1925 is said to have left 695 dead in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, but that was before accurate record-taking began.

Joplin residents were warned that more potent storms were on the way after Sunday's massive twister cut a swath of destruction four miles (6.4 kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (more than a kilometer) wide.

"There are going to be some things out there that are going to be hard to see and stomach," Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said, as the grisly rescue effort began in earnest.

Some 1,150 wounded people were also treated in area hospitals, The Joplin Globe reported.

Flames and smoke from broken gas lines clouded the wreckage as block after block of homes and businesses were reduced to rubble and cars were tossed so violently into the air that nothing was left but crumpled heaps of metal.

Jeff Law, 23, was able to take shelter in a storm cellar and was overwhelmed by what he saw when he emerged.

"I've lived in this neighborhood my entire life, and I didn't know where I was," Law told the Springfield News-Leader. "Everything was unrecognizable, completely unrecognizable. It's like Armageddon."

Caring for the injured was made more difficult because the main hospital, Saint John's Regional Medical Center, had to be evacuated after suffering a direct hit -- the tornado ripped off its roof and smashed all its windows.

A tangled medical helicopter lay in the rubble of crushed cars, broken glass and medical records strewn outside the hospital.

President Barack Obama sent his "deepest condolences" to victims and promised government aid, as more severe weather was forecast for Oklahoma, Kansas, extreme northern Texas and southwestern Missouri.

Russel Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said there was a "serious situation that's brewing."

"It is possible, if not likely, that we'll be moving to our highest alert status sometime during the next 12 to 24 hours as we gather more information," he was quoted as saying by the McClatchy newspaper service.

North of the hardest hit areas, Missouri Southern State University campus was hastily turned into headquarters for the homeless and hungry, and 110 people had sought shelter by midday Monday.

Although Jeff Malley's house was destroyed, he survived. He, a friend and his dog Sprocket made it through by hunkering down in a closet.

"It was dark inside at first, then it was daylight," he said. The walls of the closet were the only part of the house left standing.

The storm was the deadliest of 73 tornadoes reported to the National Weather Service in nine central states over the weekend and comes after a horrific tornado outbreak left 361 dead in April across several US states.

Obama said Tuesday he was "heartbroken" over the devastation wrought by the tornados and said he will visit the disaster zone Sunday.

Obama, speaking from London before opening a state visit with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, vowed the US government will stand by victims of the disaster until everyone's home has been rebuilt.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families that are suffering at the moment," Obama told reporters at Winfield House, the residence of the US ambassador in London.

"All we can do is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them and we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure they can recover."

Obama said he would travel to Missouri on Sunday, a day after he returns from a four-nation tour of Europe, to talk to victims of the disaster and to examine the US government's rescue and recovery effort.

The president also urged all Americans to take heed of storm warnings in what has been a particularly powerful and deadly storm season.

"These storms often strike without warning," he said.


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Factbox: Deadliest single tornadoes in U.S. history (Reuters)

(Reuters) – A powerful tornado scored a direct hit Joplin killing at least 116 people and leaving about 400 more injured, authorities said on Monday.

The Joplin tornado is the deadliest single twister since Woodward, Oklahoma in 1947.

Here is a list of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history:

1. Mar 18, 1925 Missouri/Illinois/Indiana; 695 dead

2. May 6, 1840 Natchez, Mississippi; 317 dead

3. May 27, 1896 St. Louis, Missouri; 255 dead

4. April 5, 1936 Tupelo, Mississippi; 216 dead

5. April 6, 1936 Gainesville, Georgia; 203 dead

6. April 9, 1947 Woodward, Oklahoma; 181 dead

7. April 24,1908 Amite, La./Purvis, Miss.; 143 dead

8. June 12, 1899 New Richmond, Wisconsin; 117 dead

9. May 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri; 116 dead

10. June 3, 1953 Flint, Michigan; 115 dead

NOTE: The death toll may rise more in Joplin as the search for missing people continues. Also, the figures do not include the series of tornadoes in the Southeast including Alabama in April 2011 which killed at least 346 people in seven states. Of those, 238 deaths were in Alabama, 41 of which were in Tuscaloosa County.

SOURCE: Storm Prediction Center of National Weather Service's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "25 deadliest tornadoes."

(Compiled by Greg McCune; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)


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Friday, May 27, 2011

Tepco confirms meltdowns at 2 more Fukushima reactors (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – The operator of the nuclear power plant at the center of a radiation scare after being disabled by Japan's earthquake and tsunami confirmed Tuesday that there had been meltdowns of fuel rods at three of its reactors.

Tokyo Electric Power Co said meltdowns of fuel rods at three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant occurred early in the crisis triggered by the March 11 disaster.

The government and outside experts had said previously that fuel rods at three of the plant's six reactors had likely melted early in the crisis, but the utility, also known as Tepco, had only confirmed a meltdown at the No.1 reactor.

Tepco officials said a review since early May of data from the plant concluded the same happened to reactors No.2 and 3.

The preliminary finding, which was reported to Japan's nuclear safety agency, represents part of an initial effort to explain how events at Fukushima spiraled out of control early in the crisis.

Also Tuesday, the government appointed Yotaro Hatamura, a Tokyo University professor of engineering who has studied how complex systems and designs fail, to head a committee that will investigate the cause and handling of the nuclear crisis.

The moves came as a team of investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency began a two-week visit to Japan to prepare a report on the accident to be submitted to the United Nations agency in June.

Some analysts said the delay in confirming the meltdowns at Fukushima suggested the utility feared touching off a panic by disclosing the severity of the accident earlier.

"Now people are used to the situation. Nothing is resolved, but normal business has resumed in places like Tokyo," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Nakano said that by confirming the meltdowns now, Tepco may be hoping the news will have less impact. The word "meltdown" has such a strong connotation that when the situation was more uncertain more people would likely have fled Tokyo, he said.

Engineers are battling to plug radiation leaks and bring the plant 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo under control more than two months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and deadly tsunami that devastated a vast swathe of Japan's northeast coastline and tipped the economy into recession.

The disaster has triggered a drop of more than 80 percent in Tepco's share price and forced the company to seek government aid as it faces compensation liabilities that some analysts say could top $100 billion.

Japanese trade minister Banri Kaieda said the government would approve the formation of a committee later Tuesday that will make sure Tepco follows through with restructuring plans.

Tepco officials said damage to the No.2 reactor fuel rods had begun three days after the quake, with much of the fuel rods eventually melting and collecting at the bottom of the pressure vessel containing them.

Fuel rods in the No.3 reactor were damaged by the afternoon of March 13, they said.

TSUNAMI

The Tepco officials repeated that the tsunami had disabled power to the reactors and knocked out their cooling capability.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, expressed a similar view.

"We don't think the quake affected the important parts of the plant, such as its cooling capacity," Nishiyama told reporters Tuesday, although he added there were still some aspects that needed to be clarified by inspecting the site directly.

That process is likely to make months because of the high radiation readings in areas of the plant, experts have said.

"It could very well be that Tepco is rushing to conclude that the tsunami is to blame to prevent further questions and give more momentum to the nuclear camp. It's not just Tepco, it's the whole nuclear industry, maybe business circles as a whole. It's highly political," said Sophia University's Nakano.

Others said that from a very early stage the tsunami, not the quake, was the likely cause of the overheating and subsequent damage of the reactors at Daiichi.

"As with the other nuclear reactors, such as Onagawa (in northeastern Japan), those at Daiichi deactivated after the quake. It is our belief that it was the tsunami that knocked out power and took out the systems and pumps that cool the reactors, resulting in their damage and radiation leakage," said Kazuhiko Kudo, a Kyushu University professor who specializes in nuclear engineering.

Despite a steady flow of information on how the clean-up is proceeding -- Tepco and the government's nuclear watchdog hold news conferences twice a day on most weekdays -- the authorities have faced criticism for what some have said is a lack of timely disclosure.

"I am very sorry that the public is mistrustful of the various disclosures made by the government on the accident," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in parliament Monday.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Michael Watson)


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No link between tornadoes and climate change: US (AFP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States is experiencing the deadliest year for tornadoes in nearly six decades, but top US weather experts said Monday there is no link between the violent twisters and climate change.

Instead, the reasons for the spiking death tolls are more likely due to the rise in the population density, the number of mobile homes and the chance paths taken by a series of tornadoes that have happened to target populated areas.

"This year is an extraordinary outlier," said Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.

"This is the deadliest year for tornadoes in the US since 1953," he said.

A massive tornado tore though the Missouri town of Joplin over the weekend, killing at least 116 people, less than a month a spate of the storms struck across seven states and killed 361 people in April.

According to Russell Schneider, director of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, that puts 2012 on par with 1953, a "horrible tornado year," when 116 people were killed in a June 8 tornado in Flint, Michigan.

The same year, 114 people were killed in a Waco, Texas twister and 90 were killed by a tornado that tore through Worcester, Massachusetts. Modern tornado records began in 1950.

"I think we have to ask ourselves the tough questions now," said Schneider.

"Why is this happening? The complexity of our society, the density of our populations in traditional tornado-prone regions of the world, community and family preparedness? Our science and technology -- are we fully exploiting that to protect Americans?"

While plenty of questions are being posed, none seem to point at climate change as a driver, and the La Nina phenomenon's effect is minimal, said Brooks.

When scientists examine the most complete records available and adjust for changes in how tornadoes were reported over time, "we see no correlation between global or US national temperature and tornado occurrence," Brooks said.

Nor are the storms themselves getting larger than they used to be, even though it may seem so after learning of massive twisters like the one in Missouri that tore apart a four-mile (10 kilometer) long, three-quarter-mile deep stretch of land.

"Tornado deaths require two things. You have to have the tornado and you have to have people in the right or the wrong place," Brooks said.

"The biggest single demographic change that probably affects things is that the fraction of mobile homes in the United States has increased over the years," he said.

More than seven percent of all 311 million Americans (about 20 million) live in mobile homes, US Census data show. And more than half of all mobile homes are in the US South which is among the regions most prone to tornado strikes.

Anything that can be tossed into the air, like cars and mobile homes, can prove deadly in a tornado and people are urged to take shelter underground if possible. Many mobile home parks, however, have no such shelters.

Twisters are formed when atmospheric conditions come together in a certain way. At low levels, the atmosphere is warm and moist, coupled with cold dry air above.

Winds must be increasing in speed from the Earth's surface up to elevations of about 20,000 feet, with directional changes, known as wind shear, so that the southerly wind blows near the surface and gains speed at higher altitude.

"In April, essentially we were stuck in a pattern where that was the way things were for a couple of weeks, and that pattern didn't move so we had repeated episodes that were favorable for producing significant tornadoes," Brooks explained.

The weather phenomenon known as La Nina, which produces cooler than normal temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, may have had a "relatively small impact" on producing that pattern, but that is not the full picture, he said.

"It's an area of research to try to identify why the pattern was so favorable and why it was favorable for so long."

The overall tornado record does not show a steadily increasing trend toward bigger, deadlier storms, he said.

For instance, "2009 was a really low year for tornadoes. Some recent years have been big, some recent years have been small," he said.

Since modern records on tornadoes began in 1950, the deadliest outbreak was on April 3, 1974. The "Super Outbreak" claimed 310 lives when 148 tornadoes over a 24-hour period swept across 13 states.

Prior to that, the single deadliest tornado in US history was in 1925, described in early accounts as killing 695 people when it tore through Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana.


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La Nina weather pattern may be factor in more tornadoes (Reuters)

CHICAGO (Reuters) – La Nina, a weather pattern characterized by colder ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, may be playing a part in the high number of U.S. tornadoes this spring, according to an AccuWeather meteorologist.

"La Nina typically has a more active southern jet stream. This spring that has played a role in the severe weather," said Mark Paquette, meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.

Another factor may be warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which helped contribute to a warm and muggy air mass in the south, Paquette said.

But meteorologists said it was impossible to determine if climate change is responsible for the surge in natural disasters.

Weather experts agree that the deadly nature of this year's tornadoes is mostly due to bad luck and population sprawl -- as some tornadoes have hit densely populated areas in Missouri and Minnesota over the weekend and Alabama in April.

"We have people where there used to be farmland," said Paquette.

This year has seen an unusually high number of tornadoes, with 1,168 as of May 22, compared to an average of about 671 by this time, according to Joshua Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.

This year's tornado season has been exceptionally deadly -- the most recent example being the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri Sunday, killing at least 116 people.

The U.S. is on pace to break the record for deaths from tornadoes this season, the National Weather Service said on Monday.

CLIMATE CHANGE A FACTOR?

Tornadoes typically form in the spring months as a result of cool air clashing with warm, humid weather. The conditions this spring have been "very favorable" for tornado formation, noted Wurman. He said that these conditions occur in some years with La Nina, but these conditions also can occur without La Nina.

Wurman said scientists are leery of drawing connections between tornadoes and long-term climate change, for a few reasons. One reason is that if something is attributable to a long-term change in climate, it would have to happen repeatedly. Last year was not a high year for tornadoes.

Scientists also do not have a good feel theoretically for what climate change would likely do to the frequency and intensity of tornadoes, Wurman said. While nearly all scientists agree climate change is occurring and globally average temperatures will probably go up, they do not know what that means for tornadoes.

"It could be climate change might cause more tornadoes, or less tornadoes, or there might be no change," Wurman said.

The tornadoes that hit the south in April were exceptional in their number, according to weather experts. What was unusual about Sunday's Missouri tornado was that it made a direct hit on a small city.

"It's bad luck," said Paquette. "Sometimes you have tornadoes that hit in the cornfields of Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa and the only person affected is that farmer and it doesn't even hit his house. But here we have a tornado that hit a hospital."

The expanding population of the United States, with accompanying suburban sprawl, has created more areas for tornadoes to cause serious damage.

Wurman noted that the tornado could have been worse if it hit an even more populated urban area, like the Chicago suburbs. "A tornado doesn't really care what's underneath it," said Wurman.

Wurman said that while it is easier for tornadoes to cause expensive and deadly damage because of sprawl, warnings also are better than they used to be. Thirty years ago, people only got an average of 3 minutes of warning before a tornado hit, now the average is 13 minutes.

"We'd like to get that up to 30 or 40 minutes," Wurman said.

He said he also would like to get the false alarm rate down because 70-75 percent of tornado warnings are false alarms, so people do not always seek shelter in time.

(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune)


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