Joplin, Mo. The numbers look increasingly bleak for families hoping for the best after a monster tornado that devastated the town of Joplin, as the city has raised the death toll to at least 139 and state officials say 100 people are still missing.
Thousands more people far beyond Joplin had been waiting for good news about a teen believed to have been ejected or sucked from his vehicle on the way home from graduation. Several social-networking efforts specifically focused on finding information about Will Norton.
But his family says he, too, is among the dead — found in a pond near where his truck was located.
“At least we know that he wasn’t out there suffering,” his aunt Tracey Presslor said, holding a framed portrait of her 18-year-old nephew at a news conference. “Knowing that he was gone right away was really a blessing for us.”
Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Saturday during a news conference that the death toll rose by three to at least 142, but later revised that figure down to 139 without elaboration.
Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he could not confirm the city’s updated death toll number. He said the state of Missouri currently places the death toll at 126, saying they have no reason to raise that number.
State officials say there are 142 sets of human remains at the morgue handling those killed by the storm and some could be from the same victim.
If the death toll does stand at 139, it would place this year’s tornado death toll at 520 and make 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950. Until now, the highest recorded death toll by the National Weather Service in a single year was 519 in 1953. There were deadlier storms before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates and not on precise figures.
The tornado — an EF-5 packing 200 mph winds —also injured more than 900 people. Tallying and identifying the dead and the missing has proven a complex, delicate and sometimes confusing exercise for both authorities and loved ones.
Missouri officials said Saturday that the number of people unaccounted for stands at 100. The Missouri Department of Public Safety said that within that number, nine people have been reported dead by their families, but state officials are working to confirm those.
Newton County coroner Mark Bridges said most, if not all, of the people brought to the temporary morgue could be identified this weekend. He described officials there as “making real good progress.”