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Lightning, gas leaks, hail don't stop first responders in Joplin

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Rescuers searching 'every square foot'
  • Hundreds hit the streets of Joplin, despite thunderstorms, looking for tornado survivors
  • A FEMA official notes that many of these first responders had lost their own homes
  • Others came from far away, like doctors who rushed to help at a stricken hospital

(CNN) -- Struck by lightning, caught up in the smell of gas, braving two-inch hail and relentless rain: None of it could stop hundreds of firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, National Guardsmen and more from heading into the devastation around Joplin, Missouri, in a desperate search for survivors.

Nor could the fact that many of the first responders searched through the rubble of buildings at the same time many of their own homes had been eviscerated. Amidst the struggles, there were victories: 17 people were rescued Monday, city manager Mark Rohr told CNN's Eliot Spitzer.

"They've lost their homes, but they have been out there for 40 hours saving lives," Richard Serino, deputy administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said from Joplin. "The work they have done ... to say it is to be commended is an understatement."

Not much more than 12 hours after the tornado touched down, Rohr said that between 400 to 500 firefighters, public works personnel and other municipal employees showed up Monday morning, unasked, hoping to help.

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The city manager said that the turnout, and the fact many others who have pitched in in other ways, is no surprise in Joplin, a city of 50,050 residents in southwest Missouri.

"Joplin is a city of neighbors helping neighbors," he said. "And with this spirit, we will overcome the hardship."

Yet the continually confounding weather Monday proved a major challenge. Rohr said that two first responders were struck by lightning while looking through debris -- he did not detail the victims' conditions afterward -- with persistent thunderstorms prompting a temporary halt to the searches.

And even by Monday evening, a full day after the twister struck, Rohr said there were "gas leaks all over the city."

"When we drive around, we can smell the gas," the city manager said. "And there are wires down everywhere. You have just got to be careful, as you navigate through the city."

The challenge doesn't appear likely to get any easier Tuesday. The National Weather Service has said there is a 45 percent chance of another tornado outbreak between 4 p.m. and midnight Tuesday over a wide swath that includes cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City and -- yet again -- Joplin.

Those assisting in the rescue effort weren't just from Joplin. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon noted that some of the more than 1,000 first responders came from Kansas City and other locales. That doesn't include the 110 highway patrolmen and 250 National Guardsmen -- with another 450 on standby -- also on the scene.

Dr. Jim Roscoe told CNN that doctors, nurses and others rushed to help, after the tornado ripped through St. John's Regional Medical Center. Even with often impassible roads and treacherous weather, he said that, "within a matter of hours, we had almost more help than we could put to use."

"I just can't begin to tell you," said Roscoe, who is heading the hospital's triage unit as it treats and redirects patients coming in for help. "We've had people coming from several hundreds of miles away, grabbing their stethoscope and anything they could get, and threw it in their car and came."

Whether treating patients and searching for bodies, those on the frontlines in Joplin also face a significant psychological toll of dealing with devastation that most of them have never seen before. Nixon said they would likely have "very difficult shifts, (because) there are going to see things out there that are hard to see and hard to stomach."

Still, voicing a sentiment echoed by officials and residents in Joplin, the governor said it wouldn't prevent the first responders from heading out again, looking for survivors.

"We are going to cover every foot of this town, and we're going to make sure that every person is accounted for," Nixon said.

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