Joplin, Mo. braces as more storms could strike the Plains

The devastating tornado that hit Joplin may have been just one blow in an outbreak of severe weather that could strike Plains states again today.

Forecasters said Monday that people in Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas and western Missouri should monitor the weather closely.

“This is a very serious situation that’s brewing and it is possible, if not likely, that we’ll be moving to our highest alert status sometime during the next 12 to 24 hours as we gather more information,” said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Cities affected, he said, include Joplin, Wichita, Kansas City, Topeka, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The climbing death toll from the quick-striking tornado that dropped from the sky just west of Joplin was historic. The 116 fatalities were the most from a single tornado since 1953, when 115 died in Flint, Mich.

The tornado comes after a record-setting April in which 875 tornadoes were reported nationwide, Schneider said. The previous record for April was 267 tornadoes in 1974, he said. Schneider pointed out, however, that tornado counts have risen in recent years with the advent of Doppler radar and mobile electronics that make it easier to report severe weather.

Still, it’s been a stormy spring. And, forecasters warn, the season is far from over.

“We’re just now entering the peak of tornado season,” Schneider said. “We’re still capable of getting major tornado outbreaks into July. You can never completely breathe easy.”

Schneider, along with Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, and Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Central Region, spoke to reporters in a telephone conference call Monday afternoon. They said this season’s tornadoes are striking more densely populated areas than usual.

“I don’t think I remember as many cases in a season this early where that has occurred,” Schwein said. “It’s going to go down as a significant severe weather season, if not one of the most significant.”

As rescue efforts were under way Monday in Joplin, more details emerged about the deadly tornado.

Schneider said preliminary estimates are classifying the tornado as an F4 “and perhaps stronger.”

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