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Search, Rescue Ongoing in Joplin’s ‘Concentrated’ Area of Tornado Damage

May 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the toll from the weekend tornado in Joplin, Mo., increased to 122 dead and 750 missing Tuesday, search-and-recovery crews continued to race to find survivors of the disaster that wiped out much of the city. Gwen Ifill discusses the magnitude of the disaster and recovery with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

GWEN IFILL: For Joplin, Mo., today, this was day two of life after the weekend tornado that wiped out much of the town. As the toll increased to 117 dead and 1,500 missing, search-and-recovery efforts continued under the threat of dangerous new storms.

Slowly, painfully, the people of Joplin began again today trying to piece lives back together in the wake of the nation’s deadliest tornado in 60 years. Rescue crews raced against the clock, searching for survivors.

MAN: It’s overwhelming, just the amount of destruction that’s everywhere. And there’s just nothing standing.

MAN: I have seen bombed-out cities, and there’s — it’s just no comparison to this.

GWEN IFILL: The search teams have braved lightning, downed power lines and gas fires — added to that today, new warnings of severe weather.


GWEN IFILL: Still, rescuers found at least seven people alive on Monday, and Joplin’s city manager hoped to find more.

MARK ROHR, city manager: We are still in search-and-rescue mode, and will be for the foreseeable future. We are working on that, and have had a wonderful outpouring of support from volunteers coming into our community to effect that search-and-rescue.

And we are involved in that, and hopefully, we will get a little cooperation, at least so far today, with the weather in order to do that as efficiently as possible.

GWEN IFILL: That meant an initial check of the entire area, followed by a slower, more methodical search.

Fire Chief Mitch Randles:

MITCH RANDLES, fire chief: We’re searching every structure that’s been damaged or destroyed in a more in-depth manner. The third search through is once again going to be very similar to that. And then the fourth search through will be with those search-and-rescue dogs. And I have got dogs and dog handlers coming from all over the country to help us with that effort.

GWEN IFILL: In one of the worst-hit areas, near two flattened big box stores, a Home Depot and a Wal-Mart, special equipment was brought in to break through massive concrete slabs.

JOSHUA DUGGAR, rescue volunteer: You see these solid concrete block walls and all this stuff is just piled in on top. And so people felt they had a sense of security in a store that was massive and big and strong and yet those walls came crashing down.

GWEN IFILL: For some of the volunteers, the search was deeply personal. Gary England’s brother was inside the Home Depot when the funnel cloud roared through.

MAN: We haven’t found him yet, but we will keep looking, or we will be out here until we find him.

GWEN IFILL: A search operation was also under way at a nearby apartment complex destroyed in the storm.

Traveling in London today, President Obama announced plans to visit the disaster zone on Sunday. And he offered condolences to the victims of the wave of tornadoes that have plagued the Midwest this spring.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want everybody in Joplin, everybody in Missouri, everybody in Minnesota, everybody across the Midwest to know that we are here for you. The American people are by your side. We’re going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, House Republicans said they are crafting a $1 billion aid package to ensure that federal disaster relief money doesn’t run out.

Federal, state and local officials have been coming to grips with what it will take to help the residents of Joplin.

One of them, Craig Fugate, is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. I spoke with him a short while ago.

Mr. Fugate, thank you for joining us. We know that you flew over the region today in a helicopter. Tell us what you saw.

CRAIG FUGATE, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Well, you saw an area about six-and-a-half-seven miles long and probably about a half- to three-quarters-of-a-mile-wide of pretty even destruction.

And this is kind of what we’re seeing in these tornadoes this year, not a lot of minor damage, just an area that is just devastated, homes destroyed, flattened, buildings destroyed, just really a concentrated area of damage as you move through this town of Joplin.

GWEN IFILL: We know that the numbers keep changing on the number of dead, injured and missing. Can you give us an update on the latest you know?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, again, I was with the governor. And at that time, they were getting reports of 118.

But search-and-rescue is still ongoing. They had a save earlier today. So, they’re not giving up hope. But they are still looking for people that are missing. And they are going into some of the heavy-hit areas where there was apartment complexes and digging through those piles at this time.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the term search-and-rescue, which, by covering former disasters — past disasters, we know there’s a point at which that becomes search-and-recovery. Do you know when that point will be with this one?

CRAIG FUGATE: You know, that’s a little bit — I think they’re just going to keep going. They have got a lot of people missing. As they said earlier today, they found a gentleman not far from the hospital that was heavily damaged. So, there’s still reason to believe that, if people are in areas where there’s voids, they may still be OK. They just need to be reached.

You know, bad weather yesterday really slowed everything down last night. So today has been a maximum effort to get back out to these areas and continue that search-and-rescue.

GWEN IFILL: With not only federal workers, but how many rescuers would you say are on the ground working at this search-and-rescue?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, just with the urban search-and-rescue teams that have come in mutual aid, the local fire department and surrounding mutual aid, it be in the hundreds.

But you also have thousands of volunteers that are now providing assistance. So, this is a very large-scale operation, not only for search-and-rescue, but also for meeting the immediate needs of the survivors.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible to compare this in any way to those April tornadoes that we saw that went throughout the South? More than 300 people were killed in those.

CRAIG FUGATE: Very similar types of damage in places. And again, I don’t really like comparing disasters or even tornadoes to each other. They’re kind of unique.

But it does remind me of some of the damages I saw in Alabama and Mississippi, where — where some of the strongest tornadoes, the path of devastation is very defined. There’s not a lot of areas that are just minor damage. You kind of go from areas that aren’t too bad to total devastation within a block or two.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that finding people who are still living and rescuing them is your first priority, after that, what does become your major concern? In some places, it’s the outbreak of disease. In some places, it’s returning services, finding shelter.

How does that rate in this particular case?

CRAIG FUGATE: I think, really, the big challenge after search-and-rescue for the federal government is going to be supporting the governor’s team and helping people find places to live.

A lot of the volunteer organizations, a lot of neighbors helping neighbors are meeting the most immediate needs. There’s a shelter open, but it doesn’t have a large population, a lot of people staying with families and friends.

So, we think the next big step is going to be helping people find a longer-term place to live while all of the rebuilding takes place.

GWEN IFILL: Are there sufficient resources available for the federal government to provide the kind of recovery aid that this region needs?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, we don’t really have formal damage assessments on the total rebuilding, but we have adequate resources right now that focus in on supporting the response and the immediate recovery, as well as the assistance to the individuals and families that have been impacted by the tornadoes.

GWEN IFILL: But no dollar sign that you can put on that?


Again, we’re still very early in this, so most of the focus has been on search-and-rescue, immediate needs, and starting that process. You know, we have just now begun registering people. As people start to register, we will get a better sense of what the needs are.

What we don’t know is how much is actually covered by insurance, and how many people didn’t have insurance or didn’t have enough coverage to take care of their losses.

GWEN IFILL: Looking backward, not only at this disaster, but at the previous ones since you have been FEMA chief, is there any way of knowing whether there was sufficient warning for the residents in this area to take the kind of shelter they needed to take to reduce the toll?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, that’s one of the jobs that the National Weather Service does after each of these major outbreaks. They bring in an assessment team to take a look at both the forecast, the warning products and how people got that. They will do formal assessments.

But, in some cases, I don’t know if — you know, if you didn’t have a place to go, could you have gotten there in time? So that’s something the Weather Service will be looking at, and looking at their forecast and warnings and how effective they were.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama said today that the federal government will be on the ground as long as it takes to restore businesses, to rescue as many people as possible, to get the community back on its feet for the long haul.

How long is the long haul in this case? Do you have any way of knowing?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I can tell you, looking at some of the schools and fire stations, it’s going to be a couple years to rebuild everything. So we will work with the local officials kind of in stages.

First stage is the rescue and emergency operations. Second stage is the immediate needs. Then we will look at getting critical facilities back online, maybe even using temporary facilities, until we get them rebuilt. So, this is going to take several years to rebuild all this damage.

But we’re not going to go away just cause it’s not in the news. We’re going to work this with the local officials and the state all the way through the recovery.

GWEN IFILL: Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thank you so much.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thank you.