CHICAGO, May 23: The deadliest tornado to hit the United States in more than 50 years cut a deadly swath through a Missouri town, turning homes into rubble, destroying a school, ripping apart a hospital and killing at least 89 people.
The tornado struck the town of Joplin near the border with Oklahoma and Kansas on Sunday evening, less than a month after a horrific tornado outbreak left 354 dead across seven US states.
It was the deadliest of 46 tornadoes reported to the National Weather Service in seven states on Sunday.
"It´s a war zone," Scott Meeker of the Joplin Globe newspaper told AFP.
"We´ve got hundreds of wounded being treated at Memorial Hall (hospital), but they were quickly overwhelmed and ran out of supplies, so they´ve opened up a local school as a triage center," Meeker said.
The White House said in a statement Monday that President Barack Obama has been monitoring reports about the devastation and the rescue efforts during his flight overnight Sunday to Ireland.
"The president received multiple updates on the tornado damage throughout the course of the flight. He instructed his staff to keep him updated and to stay closely coordinated with state and local officials going forward," the statement said.
Obama earlier sent his "deepest condolences" to victims and said the federal government stood ready to help Americans as needed.
"Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives in the tornadoes and severe weather that struck Joplin, Missouri, as well as communities across the Midwest today," the president said in a statement sent from Air Force One as he was flying to Europe.
"We commend the heroic efforts by those who have responded and who are working to help their friends and neighbors at this very difficult time," the president added.
People in Joplin clawed through the rubble looking for friends, family and neighbors after the storm tore buildings apart and turned cars into crumpled heaps of metal.
Flames and thick black smoke poured out of the wreckage of shattered homes, and water gushed out of broken pipes as shocked survivors surveyed the damage, early photos showed.
A tangled medical helicopter lay in the rubble outside St. John Regional Medical Center, which took a direct hit.
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."
The emergency manager at the neighboring county of Springfield-Greene was told that at least 24 people were killed before he rushed over to help, a spokeswoman told AFP.
With many phones down in the area, it was difficult to get further confirmation.
"It´s so devastating we can´t even grasp it at this point," Rob Chappel of the Jasper County coroner´s office told AFP.
"We´re still trying to rescue victims that are still trapped. With it being so dark and no electricity, everyone has underestimated how much is just gone."
Chappel said authorities probably won´t know the exact death toll before late Monday at the earliest.
But officials said the last twister to wreak such loss of life occurred in 1953 in Worcester, Massachusetts, when a tornado killed 90 people.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard troops in response to what he described as "significant destruction in multiple areas, including Joplin, where a tornado struck St. John´s Regional Medical Center."
The badly damaged medical center was evacuated Sunday, and Nixon warned that the storms are not over.
"These storms have caused extensive damage across Missouri, and they continue to pose significant risk to lives and property," Nixon said in a statement late Sunday.
On Saturday, a deadly tornado pummeled the east Kansas town of Reading, killing a man and damaging an estimated 80 percent of Reading´s structures, mostly wood-frame buildings.
Meanwhile, a tornado was also responsible for the death of one person in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday, authorities said. At least 30 others in that city and its suburbs were injured.