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Joplin Tornado Kills 116, Deadliest Since 1953, U.S. Says

Chad Lunt of the Kansas City Fire Department Rescue Team travels house-to-house to look for survivors in Joplin, Missouri. Photographer: Julie Denesha/Getty Images
Chad Lunt of the Kansas City Fire Department Rescue Team travels house-to-house to look for survivors in Joplin, Missouri. Photographer: Julie Denesha/Getty Images

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- The tornado that killed 116 people in Joplin, Missouri, was the deadliest single U.S. twister since 1953, with winds that may have reached 198 miles per hour (319 kph), according to Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service.

At least 481 people have died in tornadoes so far this year, the earliest such a high toll has ever been reached, said Russell Schneider, director of the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Tomorrow is expected to be another active day for tornados from Kansas to Texas.

“We are now on pace for a record year for tornado fatalities,” Schneider said on conference call with reporters today. “I think we have to be aware that we are just now entering the peak of the season.”

The deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. was 1925, when 794 people were killed, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Yesterday’s Joplin twister is tied with a 1953 Flint, Michigan, tornado as the single deadliest in records going back to 1950.

The three-quarter-mile wide tornado tore through Joplin, a city of 50,000 about 290 miles southwest of St. Louis, at 6 p.m. yesterday, destroying and damaging many homes and buildings, including St. John’s Regional Medical Center, according to state and local statements. City Manager Mark Rohr announced the latest death toll at a press conference today.

National Guard Assist

Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston declared a local disaster, according to the city’s website, while Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and sent National Guard troops to help.

The outbreak comes about a month after at least 305 tornadoes tore through the U.S. South, killing 327 people, mostly in Alabama, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. The damage from the storms April 25 to April 27 was estimated to be as much as $5 billion, according to catastrophic risk modeler Eqecat Inc. in Oakland, California.

This year’s stormy season may be caused by a waning La Nina, a cooling in the Pacific Ocean, that is focusing the track for severe storms at just the right distance from warm moist air coming north from the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf are now 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the pre-1970 average, said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Ocean Warming

“Two degrees of that can be attributed to natural variability while one degree Fahrenheit is associated with climate change,” said Trenberth in an interview today. “Some part of it is global warming-climate change and some part is natural variability.”

Hayes, Schneider and Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the weather service’s central region, who was also on the conference call, weren’t ready to attribute the outbreaks to climate change.

“This is certainly a rich topic for research,” Schneider said.

Schneider said there is “emerging research” to suggest that years like 2011 in which a La Nina fades tend to produce more tornadoes.

More deadly tornadoes may develop tomorrow from Kansas to Texas, Schneider said.

“There are some very dense population areas,” Schneider said. “This is a very serious situation that is brewing.”

Dave Samuel, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania, said he doesn’t see much relief from the storms.

“I would be surprised if there is a day this week where there wasn’t a tornado report,” said Samuels. “There is going to be a nasty storm Tuesday through Thursday. I don’t see any big break coming.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Stets at dstets@bloomberg.net

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