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Devastated Joplin stunned by tornado damage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2011 - On a May evening 40 years ago, Nanette Clevenger heard the tornado sirens. She was just 12, living four miles south of Interstate 44 near Joplin.

That tornado, which hit on May 6, 1971, killed one man and was, until last night, the worst thing to hit town.

Last night, Clevenger was at her Carthage, Mo., home when she heard the sirens again. Her mother, who lives in Joplin, left the Elks Lodge at 5:15 p.m. and Clevenger reached her by phone at 5:30 p.m. The Elks Lodge, near St. John's Hospital, is now gone. Clevenger hasn't spoken with her mother yet but did get a message from her parents saying they were OK. At least 90 people in Joplin are confirmed dead. According to media reports, the tornado stretched nearly a mile wide, and the number of dead is expected to rise.

"I have friends, they have nothing and they can't figure out how they survived because their whole home is gone and they were inside of it," says Clevenger, a reference librarian at the Joplin Public Library.

So far, all her fellow employees have been accounted for. Seven or eight of them have lost their homes, she says, and one has a broken arm, but many other people in Joplin are missing.

On the Facebook page Joplin Tornado Info, families are searching for those people, looking for information on structures and businesses and offering prayers and support.

At the library, Clevenger has been fielding calls all morning. A man from Scotland called looking for his parents, and another librarian took a call from a person in Japan, also looking for family members.

Jessica Willingham, chief communications officer with the St. Louis Chapter of the Red Cross, says the chapter has been mobilized and is currently on standby. Six hundred volunteers from the area are ready to go, and until then, they're working on logistics from here. St. Louis is one of the locations where supplies are kept, and water, food and other supplies are being made ready to be distributed.

As always in events like this, Willingham says the best help is donations of money. With power lines down and streets torn up, it's a dangerous time in Joplin now, and volunteers who have already been prepared are the best equipped to handle the situation.

Once there, the Red Cross will help storm survivors get registered with their Safe and Wellprogram, which allows people to check in and let family members know they're OK.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and its federal partners are working closely with state and local officials in Missouri and the other states impacted by the deadly tornadoes and severe storms that struck the Midwest on Saturday and Sunday. At the direction of President Barack Obama, FEMA this morning added the two Missouri counties impacted by tornadoes, Jasper and Newton, to an ongoing disaster declaration the state received for recent storms, which means that tornado survivors there can now apply for disaster assistance with FEMA.

FEMA has already deployed staff on the ground in Missouri to help state officials. Earlier this morning, President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano both called Gov. Jay Nixon to express the administration's commitment to assisting the state and Missouri residents.

At the president's request, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate will travel to Missouri to ensure that the state has all the support it needs, and today FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino will also travel to Joplin.

"What happened over the weekend in Missouri, Minnesota and Kansas is simply heartbreaking, and all of us are thinking of and praying for the families and communities devastated by these deadly storms," said Fugate. "As President Obama and Secretary Napolitano told Gov. Nixon over the past day, the entire federal family is ready to support the impacted states in any way needed. We thank the first responders, volunteers and good Samaritans who have been working heroically, around the clock, to save lives and conduct search and rescue efforts. We urge all survivors of these storms in Jasper and Newton counties to contact FEMA about applying for federal disaster aid."

Clevenger hasn't driven into the affected area of Joplin yet, but on her drive in this morning, she saw a line of emergency vehicles from surrounding areas bumper to bumper on a bridge into town.

"It's something to see, all the red and yellow," she says. "Instantly, you just tear up. It's like, my God, they're here for us, for our town."

Kristen Hare