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Joplin missing list reaches zero; death toll at 134

By Michael Martinez, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Death toll could still rise, as many victims still are fighting for their lives
  • Many relatives were frustrated with state's slow method for verifying identities
  • The Joplin tornado is the deadliest since modern record keeping began in 1950

(CNN) -- The list of people missing in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, reached zero Wednesday afternoon as authorities said they have located all unaccounted-for individuals or have confirmed their deaths, the Missouri Department of Public Safety said.

At one point, more than 1,300 people were reported as unaccounted for in the aftermath. The May 22 tornado killed more than 100, becoming the deadliest twister since modern record keeping began in 1950.

The number of unaccounted-for individuals eventually saw a big drop as authorities said only 268 missing-person reports were officially filed. Of the 268, 144 were eventually located, and 124 were confirmed dead, with their relatives formally notified, state officials said Wednesday.

The overall death toll in the tornado was 134 persons as of 1 p.m. CT on Wednesday -- not 142 as Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr told CNN over the weekend -- according to state officials.

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The death count could rise because many tornado victims are hospitalized and fighting for their lives, said spokesman Seth Bundy of the state's public safety department. Of the 134 who were killed, three died in a hospital, state officials said.

"We have a lot of critically injured folks that we're hoping and praying they'll pulll through, but there could be additional deaths attributed to this storm," Bundy told CNN.

The Missouri governor praised how additional state troopers expedited the accounting of missing persons. Many relatives of missing persons expressed frustration with the state's method of using a slower, more scientific method to verify the identities of bodies recovered in the twister.

"In the wake of this devastating tornado, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers have demonstrated outstanding professionalism and dedication in carrying out the vital mission of locating every individual who was unaccounted for after the storm," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement.

"Our troopers worked 24/7 to locate these individuals and to bring relief to the families of the living, and closure to the families of those who died. This was a critical mission that our Missouri State Highway Patrol performed exceptionally well," the governor said.

Judy Dunn, 65, was among the last people to receive word from state investigators on what became of their missing relatives, she told CNN on Wednesday.

Dunn's sister, Faith, 71, had been missing since the May 22 tornado, but Dunn had a good idea that her sister didn't survive because there was nothing left of her top floor apartment in a two-story building, not even her piano, Dunn said.

The only possessions belonging to her sister that Dunn found were two dinner knives and small glass figurine of a cat, she said.

"Seventy-one years, and that was all that was left of her. I guess you can't take it with you," said Dunn, who lives 20 miles north of Joplin. "I knew in my heart she was gone."

Dunn gave authorities a DNA sample by running a sponge swab through the inside of her mouth, but she could sleep only two or three hours a night as she awaited the final word from authorities, whose meticulous verfication process prompted them to ask Dunn three or four times whether she and her sister had the same parents, Dunn said. Of course, Dunn told them, their father was a minister.

On Monday evening, state investigators indicated they may have some news for her on Tuesday, so Dunn took that day off from her job as a caregiver, she said.

When she finally received the official word from authorities on Tuesday evening that her sister's body was identified in the local morgue and had died in the tornado, Dunn felt emotions ranging from dread to relief.

"It was terrifying. I had been in limbo," Dunn said. "I'm actually relieved that she has been found and that she's in a much better place. Our parents are both dead, and we had a brother in between us and he died in 2006. It's tough for me to be left behind."

Faith Dunn was a retired teacher of piano and sign language for the deaf at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Dunn said. Their late brother was survived by two daughters and a son, Dunn said.

Now, with Joplin in splinters, surviving residents are left without homes, without jobs. Eqecat, Inc., a catastrophe risk modeling firm, last week estimated the disaster caused up to $3 billion in damage to the city of about 50,000 people, CNNMoney reported.

"It's going to take years and years to get Joplin back," Dunn said. "You just don't fathom it until you start getting down to the nitty-gritty. They don't have a car, they don't have a job."

Among the 134 confirmed dead was a 16-month-old boy, Skyuler I. Logsdon. Left destitute by the tornado, the boy's family was holding a funeral fundraiser to bury the toddler in a funeral scheduled for next Monday. The family was soliciting donations to be sent to Clark Funeral Home, 312 S. Wood Stret, Neosho, Missouri 64850.

CNN's Gary Tuchman and Dana Ford contributed to this report.

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