The extraordinary Joplin, Mo., tornado — the single deadliest twister since officials began keeping records in 1950 — was a rare destructive phenomenon known as a "multi-vortex," hiding two or more cyclones within the wider wind funnel.

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The extraordinary Joplin, Mo., tornado — the single deadliest twister since officials began keeping records in 1950 — was a rare destructive phenomenon known as a “multi-vortex,” hiding two or more cyclones within the wider wind funnel.

Sunday’s storm smashed the southwest Missouri city’s hospital, left nothing but splintered trees where neighborhoods once stood and killed at least 116 people, with the death toll expected to rise. The storm injured 500 others and damaged or destroyed at least 2,000 buildings.

Much of the south side of the city of 50,000 was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins by winds estimated as high as 198 mph.

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The tornado, estimated to be an EF4 by the National Weather Service, carved a path six miles long and one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide.

Rescuers have made three sweeps, block by block, in their search for survivors. As rescuers toiled in the debris, a strong thunderstorm lashed the crippled city. Rescue crews moved gingerly around downed power lines and jagged chunks of debris.

Crews found bodies in vehicles flipped over, torn apart and left crushed like empty cans. Triage centers and temporary shelters quickly filled to capacity. At Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, emergency workers treated critically injured patients.

After daybreak, survivors picked through the rubble of their homes, salvaging clothes, furniture, family photos and financial records, the air pungent with the smell of gas and smoking embers. Some looting was reported.

A 5-year-old boy was found dead, his body crumpled beneath the tangle of steel and mountain of bricks that once was Joplin High School. The boy’s mother cried in grief when she heard.

“I’m devastated inside,” said Luke McCormick, the shaken 19-year-old volunteer rescue worker who helped lift the boy’s limp body from the debris.

Outside McAuley Catholic High School, which had been turned into an impromptu triage center, Carolene Coleman, 70, dropped her head. Her voice quavered. Her eyes pooled with tears as she sat scraped and bruised in a wheelchair, her ankle bandaged.

All they were doing, Coleman said, was stopping for a drink at the Elk’s Lodge. Then the twister roared and ripped. There was no basement; nowhere was safe.

“The roof collapsed on everybody,” she said. She was crushed; her husband, Clyde, 74, lay on top of her for nearly six hours. They were married for 54 years. Everyone was screaming, “Help! Help us!”

She knew the truth.

“He’s dead,” she said.

National Weather Service officials said the tornado warning was issued at 5:17 CDT p.m. Sunday, based not on sightings but on radar.

“The radar indications resulted in a warning being issued at 5:17, when the storm was still fairly far to the west of the Joplin area,” said Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the NWS’ Central Region. “So the tornado actually dropped down from the cloud 24 minutes after the warning was issued.”

Schwein said officials did not issue a “tornado emergency” — a term created three years ago during a deadly tornado that destroyed Greensburg, Kan.

“That’s only when we have a well-established, large tornado moving into an area and we have confirmation of that tornado,” he said. “In this case, the tornado warning was issued based on radar. There were no reports of a tornado on the ground.”

At a Fast Trip convenience store, 20 people ran into a pitch-black cooler as the building began to collapse around them. They documented their experience with a video that was drawing tens of thousands of views online by Monday afternoon. The audio was more terrifying than the imagery — earsplitting wind, objects smashed, wailing children and a woman praying repeatedly.

For Deidre Wessman, 49, the only image she wants to remember is that of her son, 12-year-old Chance Hamilton, running out of their house after the storm, in search of his friends. And once he found them, embracing in the middle of the street.

“That’s what I want to remember. That sight,” she said of the boys hugging, smiling as if they hadn’t seen each other in 100 years.

Wessman, Chance and his father, Johnny Wessman, 49, escaped the storm in a fallout shelter, dug nearly 10 feet deep under a heavy steel trap door in the floor of their home. Even at that depth, Johnny Wessman could feel and hear the walls of the house expand and contract. The air was sucked from their lungs. Their ears popped as the tornado roared overhead.

Down the street, the tall empty hulk of St. John’s Hospital stood in the distance: its windows blown out; its floor black and empty, like an image from Beirut.

Staff hustled patients into hallways before the storm struck the nine-story building, blowing out hundreds of windows and leaving the facility useless.

The hospital once held as many 367 patients. Five people died there, although it was unclear if they were patients or staff members.

In the parking lot, a helicopter lay crushed on its side, its rotors torn apart and windows smashed. Winds carried debris — medical records, X-rays, insulation and other items — up to 60 miles away, said Larry Woods, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.

Kelley Fritz rummaged briefly through what was left of a storage building, then gave up. Her boys, both Eagle Scouts, rushed into the neighborhood after realizing every home was destroyed.

When they returned, she said, “my sons had deceased children in their arms.”

The Joplin twister was one of 68 reported tornadoes across seven Midwest states over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. One person was killed in Minneapolis. But the devastation in Missouri was the worst, eerily reminiscent of the tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across the South last month.

As in the Midwest, the Southerners also had warning — as much as 24 minutes. But those storms were too wide and too powerful to escape. They obliterated entire towns from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Bristol, Va., in what the weather service said was the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak since April 1974.

“This was one tornado,” said Greg Carbin, warning specialist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “It was not the same type of large-scale outbreak.”

Added to the record 875 tornadoes that tore across the country in April, this latest disaster has experts asking why 2011 has spawned so many deadly storms.

“We have had more F4’s and F5’s than in past years,” NWS director Jack Hayes said, referring to the two most destructive categories of tornadoes. And instead of touching down in farms and fields, storms have hit cities such as Joplin and Tuscaloosa.

An emerging body of research points to a cyclical drop in temperatures in the Pacific Ocean as part of the answer. Called La Niña, the cycle lasts at least five months and repeats every three to five years. La Niña this year is pushing a strong jet stream east and south, altering prevailing winds. The jet stream’s river of cool air high in the atmosphere pulls warmer, more humid air from the ground upward, forming thunderstorm “super-cells.”

Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Norman, said the tornado appeared to have multiple vortices, which emerged from the wall of the main funnel.

“Many strong to violent tornadoes have multiple vortices within them,” Schneider said. “They are short-lived, more intense circulations within the broader, tornadic circulation. And it is within these multiple vortices that the most severe damages will most frequently occur, as wind speeds can boost from 50 to 80 miles an hour stronger.”

Tornado experts said the huge funnel cloud hid within it two or more swirling cyclones, a phenomenon known as a “multi-vortex” or “wedge vortex” tornado. The centers of such intense funnels become unstable, wobble, and spin out two to six smaller twisters from within. The short-lived but intense subtwisters dance around the edge of the cloud, spinning up to 80 mph faster than the wider mother funnel, said Ernest Agee, a tornado researcher at Purdue University.

Such tornadoes often blaze a peculiar destructive path that flattens buildings on one edge of the funnel while nearby structures survive relatively unscathed.

In an online video filmed by a survivor of the tornado, the blasting roar of the storm quiets for a few seconds before a second roar arrives — a telltale sign of a multi-vortex tornado, Agee said.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said warning sirens went off 18 minutes before the tornado hit. A handful of residents, however, said the sirens weren’t loud enough.

The devastating tornado may have been just one blow in an outbreak of severe weather that could strike Plains states again Tuesday. Forecasters said people in Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas and western Missouri should monitor the weather closely.

“We’re just now entering the peak of tornado season,” Schneider said

Compiled from The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press

A deadly year
Sunday’s tornadoes make it likely that 2011 will become the deadliest year for twisters since at least 1953. Below are the 10 worst years for tornado fatalities dating to 1875:
Year Deaths
1925 794
1936 552
1917 551
1927 540
1896 537
1953 519
1920 499
2011 481*
1908 477
1909 404
1932 394
* As of Monday.

Source: Harold Brooks, research meteorologist, National Severe Storms Center, Norman, Okla. The National Weather Service began formally archiving tornado data in 1950; earlier totals are based on various historical accounts.

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