Missouri storm’s new death toll makes 2011 deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950s

May 28, 2011

The numbers look increasingly bleak for families hoping for the best after a monster tornado devastated this southwestern Missouri city last Sunday. The city has raised the death toll to at least 139, and state officials say 100 people are missing.

Thousands of people far beyond Joplin had been waiting for good news about a teen thought to have been ejected from his vehicle on the way home from graduation. Several social-networking efforts sought information about Will Norton.

But his family says he, too, is among the dead — found in a pond near where his truck was located.

“At least we know that he wasn’t out there suffering,” Norton’s aunt Tracey Presslor said, holding a framed portrait of the 18-year-old at a news conference.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Saturday at a news conference that the death toll had risen to at least 142, but he later revised that figure down to 139 without elaboration.

Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said Saturday that he could not confirm the city’s updated death toll. He said the state places it at 126. State officials say that there are 142 sets of human remains at the morgue handling the storm’s victims and that some of the remains could be from the same victim.

This year’s tornado death toll now stands at 520, making 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes in the United States since 1950. Until now, the highest recorded death toll by the National Weather Service in a single year was 519 in 1953. There were deadlier storms before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates.

The tornado — an EF-5 packing 200 mph winds — also injured more than 900 people.

State officials said Saturday that the number of people unaccounted for stands at 100. The Department of Public Safety said that within that number, nine people have been reported dead by their families but that state officials are working to confirm those.

Newton County coroner Mark Bridges said most, if not all, of the bodies at the morgue could be identified this weekend.

Immediately after the storm, four people had identified one person’s body, only to be wrong. Authorities are now relying on dental records, photos, tattoos or piercings, and DNA tests for positive identification, Bridges said.

Presslor said Saturday that the family received confirmation of Norton’s death late Friday. Family members had said Norton and his father, Mark, were on the road when the storm hit. Mark Norton urged his son to pull over, but the teen’s Hummer H3 flipped several times, throwing him from the vehicle, probably through the sunroof.

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