The massive six-mile-long debris field left by a killer tornado that swept through Joplin, Mo., six days ago still holds a terrible mystery for a city struggling with massive loss of life and property: Where are the missing?
A list of 1,500 missing was quickly reduced earlier this week, but the current number has remained stubbornly constant at 232 for two days, battering, but not dashing, hopes that people may still be found in the rubble. A total of 132 people have so far been confirmed as casualties. Officials are expected to release an updated list of the missing on Friday.
"The amount of the missing in this storm is bewildering," says Larry Tanner, a wind expert at Texas Tech University. "Given the amount of debris and the piles of debris, it's reasonable to expect that there's going to be persons who have perished underneath. But there's also reason to hope that there's still going to be survivors amongst all the piles of debris."
The decision to end the search and begin bulldozing is still far off, officials say. "We will keep a relentless focus on the search, rescue, and identification of those 232 people, and we will not rest until everyone has been accounted for, and that number is zero," Gov. Jay Nixon said on Thursday.
The frustration bubbled over at times on Thursday, as family members of the missing lashed out at the paucity of official information and a lockdown at the city morgue. "We can't get any answers," Debbie Cummins told Reuters. Her great-grandson, a 16-month-old, was eventually confirmed as one of the victims.
But the careful and methodical approach taken by officials in Joplin, where some 60 people are working to identify remains through DNA matches, dental records, and collating missing persons reports, is understandable, experts say, especially as hope remains that, as with Haiti and Japan's tsunami, survivors could still be unearthed.
Officials began taking extra precautions after one victim was misidentified in the chaos right after the storm hit, Newton County coroner Mark Bridges told the Associated Press. The delays, however, have not been easy to explain to frantic residents. "It breaks my heart," said Bridges.
Nevertheless, local officials said on Friday that they would soon begin letting residents into the morgue to help identify remains through marks like tattoos.
"Some people hold on that no news is good news," says Vickie Mays, a UCLA psychologist who specializes in postdisaster recovery. "It's still a time of hope [in Joplin], still a time of people thinking miracles are going to happen, that if I just pray hard enough, if I just stay positive, if I use all my energies and resources to contact everybody, I'm going to find them."
The tornado struck Sunday, leaving a six-mile swath of destruction in the city of 50,000 on the edge of the Ozarks. Only seven other tornadoes in recorded US history have been more deadly – and none in the past 50 years. It became part of the most deadly tornado season in the modern meteorological era, with nearly 500 Americans dead in a states from Oklahoma to North Carolina.
With communications still spotty and power out in many parts of Joplin, residents have struggled to make contact with friends and relatives. Pictures of the missing have gone up. One resident spray-painted "Looking 4 Zachary Williams Age 12," and a phone number, on the side of a pickup truck, CBS News reports.
Even as more remains were identified at week's end, the missing list continued to be whittled down as at least some of the missing were found unhurt.
"Folks wondering about Larry Allen, who was living near the Stained Glass Theater, he is fine," a radio announcer said Wednesday. "He's staying with friends."
On Thursday, a picture of a missing girl was scrawled with the word: "Found!"