JOPLIN, Mo. — Friends and family paid tribute to victims of the Joplin tornado on Friday, beginning the grim task of burying the dead as officials said the savage storm’s death toll had risen to 132 people.
As the first funeral began just over the Kansas border, city officials said the body count had gone up by six from the previous day. The state meanwhile worked to pare down the list of people missing and unaccounted for in the wake of the deadliest single U.S. twister in more than six decades.
The original list of 232 missing or unaccounted for residents had dropped to 156 by Friday, Missouri Department of Public Safety deputy director Andrea Spillars said, adding that at least 90 people on the initial list had been located alive.
But at least six others were identified as among the dead, and some new names had been added to the scroll of the missing. Authorities had cautioned for days that while they believed many on the list were alive and safe, others likely had been killed.
City manager Mark Rohr acknowledged during an afternoon news conference that there may be “significant overlap” between the confirmed dead and the remainder of the missing list. Still, search and rescue crews were undeterred, with 600 volunteers and 50 dog teams out again across the city.
“We’re going to be in a search and rescue mode until we remove the last piece of debris,” Rohr said.
Earlier Friday, hundreds of mourners packed Tennessee Friends Prairie Church in Galena, Kan., for the first funeral of the tornado’s confirmed victims.
Few mentioned the deadly twister, or even the circumstances under which Adam Dewayne Darnaby died four days short of his 28th birthday. Instead, they celebrated the life of a devout Christian who loved his wife of less than three years and was a favorite uncle to nine nieces and nephews.
Darnaby was described as a hunter, former high school football player and avid catfish fisherman who made fast friends. He watched little television because, in the words of a close friend, “he was too busy living.”
The funeral service concluded with a recording of “A Country Boy Can Survive,” a paean to rural life by Hank Williams Jr.
“That tornado was tiny,” said Wes Davis, pastor of Riverton Friends Church in southeast Kansas, which Darnaby attended. “It was no match for Adam Darnaby.”
Numbers describing Sunday’s storm are nothing short of numbing. The tornado — an EF5 monster packing 200 mph winds — was the deadliest since 1950 and more than 900 people were injured.
Tallying and identifying the dead and the missing has proven a complex, delicate and sometimes confusing exercise for both authorities and loved ones.
At least 19 bodies have been released to relatives, Spillars said, a small fraction of the overall count. Identification has been slow because officials have taken extra precautions since a woman misidentified one victim as her son in the chaotic hours after the tornado hit.
Authorities say their deliberate identification efforts are necessary to avoid more mishaps.
“It is important that we be absolutely accurate in this process,” Spillars said.
A federal forensics team of 50 to 75 disaster mortuary specialists has been at work in six refrigerated trucks, collecting DNA samples for testing, taking fingerprints and looking for tattoos, body piercings, moles and other distinctive marks.
Allowing relatives into the morgue to identify loved ones may not be necessary in many cases if those bodies “can be identified using other methods,” Spillars said.
Business leaders, meanwhile, have been tallying the storm’s bleak economic toll. The Joplin Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday that at least 300 businesses and 4,000 jobs were affected by the tornado.
One of the city’s largest employers, St. John’s Hospital, was destroyed. But hospital officials have vowed to rebuild and said they are committed to retaining the hospital’s 2,000 employees.
Home Depot and Wal-Mart, also large employers, say they will rebuild. Dillon’s, a grocery store also destroyed, has not made a commitment.