US states braced for more storms yesterday after a tornado in Missouri killed 116 people, putting it on course to be the deadliest single twister to strike the US in modern history.
Forecasters warned that more potent storms were on the way in the area around Joplin, Missouri, where the massive twister struck on Sunday leading to 116 deaths, matching the deadliest tornado in modern US records.
“We are currently forecasting a major severe weather outbreak over the central United States with strong tornadoes likely over Oklahoma, Kansas, extreme northern Texas, southwest Missouri,” said Russell Schneider, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Centre.
“There are some very dense population areas,” Mr Schneider said. “This is a very serious situation that is brewing.”
At least 481 people have died in tornadoes so far this year, the earliest that such a high toll has been reached, Mr Schneider said.
The tornado in Joplin tied with a 1953 Flint, Michigan, twister as the single deadliest in records going back to 1950.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon yesterday said seven people had been rescued from rubble in Joplin.
There were reports of scattered looting in the city of 50,000.
Mr Nixon declared a state of emergency and said he was “optimistic that there are still lives out there to be saved”.
But he warned: “There are going to be some things out there that are going to be hard to see and stomach.”.
The outbreak follows a month after at least 305 tornadoes tore through the southern US, killing 327 people.
Yesterday, uprooted trees, overturned cars, power wires, furniture and other debris littered roads, while leaks from ruptured gas lines sparked fires.
“You feel numb,” said Theresa Burrell, 50, sorting through debris in front of her two-storey home.
Her house was mostly intact, with an empty space atop her front porch. “This is where my balcony used to be,” she said.
Her cats were missing but she added, “we feel very blessed. People across the street don’t have anything.”
Jeff Law, 23, took shelter in a storm cellar and was overwhelmed by what he saw when he emerged.
“I’ve lived in this neighbourhood my entire life, and I didn’t know where I was,” Law told the Springfield News-Leader.
“Everything was unrecognisable, completely unrecognisable. It’s like Armageddon.”
This year’s stormy season may be caused by a waning La Nina, a cooling in the Pacific Ocean, that is creating a zone suitable for tornado conditions as warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with colder air in the north.
Sea surface temperatures in the gulf are now 1.6C warmer than the pre-1970 average, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
The reasons for the spiking death tolls were more likely 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.
Mr Schneider said: “I think we have to ask ourselves the tough questions now. 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?”
Mr Brooks said demographic changes had led to higher death tolls. “Tornado deaths require two things. You have to have the tornado and you have to have people in the right or the wrong place,” he said. “The biggest single demographic change that probably affects things is that the fraction of mobile homes in the US has increased over the years.”
More than 7 per cent of 311 million US citizens live in mobile homes, US census data show, and more than half of mobile homes are in the tornado-prone US South.