134 now confirmed dead after Joplin, Mo., tornado

JOPLIN (AP) — Everyone reported missing since last week’s massive tornado in Joplin has been accounted for, and at least 134 people have been confirmed killed, state officials said Wednesday.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety said the confirmed death toll of 134 includes 124 people who had been on the unaccounted-for list, seven people who were taken immediately to funeral homes after the storm, and three people who have since died in the hospital from their injuries.

More than 8,000 homes and apartments, and more than 500 commercial properties, were damaged or destroyed in the tornado.

Officials said the final 10 people on the list were tracked down by the Missouri Highway Patrol, which has led the effort to find the 268 people listed as unaccounted for after the May 22 tornado.

“Our troopers worked 24/7 to locate these individuals and to bring relief to the families of the living and closure to the families of those who died,” Gov. Jay Nixon said. “This was a critical mission that our Missouri Highway Patrol performed exceptionally well.”

The state said the Jasper County coroner has authorized the release of bodies that had been at a temporary morgue to their families so they may be laid to rest. By Wednesday afternoon, 119 victims had been released from the morgue, the state said in a news release.

The state now believes the 134 deaths is the up-to-date death toll but cautioned there could be more from people currently hospitalized with severe injuries.

“It is our belief that, pending further deaths from those injured, the count is 134,” said Seth Bundy, a spokesman for the state. “We do have some folks critically injured in hospitals, and we’re hoping and praying that they will pull through.”

Bundy said he did not know how many people are critically injured.

The announcement came as crews began the long task of removing millions of cubic yards of debris from the damage zone. City and federal officials warned Wednesday that people should take precautions to avoid dust and other airborne particulates that could contain hazardous material.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Missouri National Guard and other agencies are working together on debris removal that will raise potentially hazardous dust as bulldozers move piles of rubble and streets are swept.

The Environmental Protection Agency has provided masks and safety instructions to search and rescue crews, contractors, volunteers and residents.

“If it’s dusty enough that you can visibly see dust coming at you, you should wear the masks that have been provided as a precaution,” said Eric Nold, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

The EPA has been monitoring air quality in Joplin at six ground-level sites in the debris field since Saturday, checking for asbestos and other potentially harmful particulates that could be floating in the air from the devastating tornado that ripped through more than six miles of town.

So far, tests show particulate levels are normal, city officials said. No asbestos has been found in testing.

The city said temporary, roving testing stations will be installed where debris collection is occurring. While dust and particulate testing shows immediate results, testing for asbestos takes about two days to process.

“We have no reason to believe that dust or particulates are a health hazard at this point, but we simply want people to be aware and take precautions as they go about their work,” said Sam Anselm, Joplin’s assistant city manager.

FEMA said more than 7,000 Joplin-area residents have registered for assistance since the EF-5 tornado that packed winds of more than 200 mph.

Meanwhile, Nixon announced the Missouri Disaster Recovery Jobs Program, using an initial $5.8 million investment funded through the federal Workforce Investment Act.

The workers will assist with clean-up and humanitarian efforts in Jasper and Newton counties, which were struck by the May 22 tornado that killed 134 people and damaged more than 8,000 homes and apartments, along with more than 500 commercial structures.

Nixon says putting people back to work is a vital part of the process of rebuilding Joplin.

Another bit of good news came Tuesday, when Joplin schools superintendent C.J. Huff announced that one damaged school thought to be a total loss was deemed by an engineer to be structurally stable, so it could be used again.

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