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Storms move east as grisly recovery continues in Missouri, Oklahoma

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Tornado watches come and go, without incident, in the Northeast
  • Two people die after trees fall on vehicles during storm in Atlanta, police say
  • The death toll in Joplin, Missouri, rises to 126 people, the coroner says
  • The governor says he expects the pace of body-identification will now pick up

Tune in at 8 ET Saturday night for CNN Presents' "A Twister's Fury: In the Path of Destruction." CNN shows you how large parts of Joplin, Missouri, were reduced to rubble in minutes. Also, are you there? Please send your stories, photos and videos.

(CNN) -- As severe weather moved eastward, the devastation mounted Thursday in parts of the Midwest where hundreds mourned the deaths of loved ones and clung to hopes they'd be found alive following a wave of powerful tornadoes.

Severe thunderstorm warnings and watches extended from South Carolina north along the Appalachian mountains to West Virginia on Thursday evening. Tornado watches that had been issued the same night for parts of Pennysylvania, New York and Vermont, meanwhile came and went without any signs of significant damage.

Two people died Thursday evening in Atlanta, at the southern edge of the storm system, after trees fell on two vehicles, said city police spokeswoman Kim Jones. There were also numerous reports of wires and trees down throughout the city, though no indication of any tornado like those that ripped through the central United States earlier this week.

The worst-hit community is Joplin, Missouri. The twister that hit that city Sunday night was the single deadliest in the United States since modern record-keeping began 61 years ago.

Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges told CNN on Thursday night that the death toll from the EF5 twister -- which had winds topping 200 mph -- had risen to 126 people. Those bodies were being stored in temporary refrigeration units, while they are identified and eventually released to their relatives.

After flying in $2 million worth of equipment, a federal government team will head the effort to positively identify the tornado victims, according to Bridges.

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After the first case resulted in a false identification, authorities are now not allowing individuals in because many bodies are in such bad condition that they're difficult to recognize, the coroner said. Instead, they are relying on information like dental records, fingerprints, DNA and other such data.

"A lot have blood on their face, they don't look like they used to look," Bridges said of the victims.

As criticism grew that authorities weren't moving fast enough, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he asked the state's Department of Public Safety to take over the process of identifying victims on Wednesday.

Andrea Spillars, the department's deputy director, led the team of 60 people who worked through the night and released a list Thursday -- published online at dps.mo.gov -- of 232 people who have been reported missing since Sunday night. The governor said that he expected the pace of the body-identification and release process to pick up significantly in the coming days.

"When I see the local folks strained beyond their limits, we move in," Nixon told CNN on Thursday, adding that "now is not the time to point fingers." "The mourning here is not over (but) we're going to do everything we can."

Roughly 8,000 structures in Joplin suffered damage, city manager Mark Rohr said, citing a Federal Emergency Management Agency report. The southwest Missouri city feared another blow late Tuesday as storms moved through the area, but there were no reported touchdowns then.

But the same storm system late Tuesday and early Wednesday left 10 people dead in Oklahoma, four in Arkansas and two in Kansas, authorities said. The numbers have fluctuated as officials scramble to deal with the disaster.

The most severe damage from that round of severe weather appeared to be in central Oklahoma's Canadian County, which includes a sliver of of Oklahoma City.

At least seven people were killed and more than 100 were injured, according to the sheriff's department and the county's emergency management office. Others were missing, authorities said.

Cole Hamil, a 15-month-old boy, was among those killed. And on Thursday, authorities found the body of his 3-year-old brother, Ryan, floating in a lake. Their 5-year-old sister Cathleen survived, as did their mother Catherine Hamil, who is pregnant.

"I lost both of my boys," said a tearful Hank Hamil, the brothers' father, on Thursday.

"Ryan was my little buddy. Cole was, too. I loved them both," said Hank Hamil, who was out of town when the storms struck.

It has been a historic tornado season in the United States. More than 500 people have been killed, according to figures from the National Weather Service and local authorities. That makes 2011 the deadliest season since 1953, when 519 people were killed in twisters.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency Wednesday in 68 Oklahoma counties hit by the tornadoes and other severe weather. Only nine counties in the state were not included in the declaration.

"Our hearts go out to those who lost their loved ones in the storms last night, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all the families and communities that have been affected," Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement.

CNN's Marlena Baldacci, Vivian Kuo, Randi Kaye and Leslie Tripp contributed to this report.

 
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