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Missouri gov't: 232 missing after Joplin tornado

Updated at 7:09 p.m. ET

Missouri's government announced Thursday that more than 230 people are still unaccounted for after a powerful tornado hit the southwestern city of Joplin Sunday.

Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the state's Department of Public Safety, told reporters in a morning news conference that 232 people are missing. She urged survivors to check in.

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"Our goal is to get that number to zero," Spillars said of the missing. "We will dedicate as much state resources as needed around the clock to ensure those family who have loved ones that they cannot find are connected."

But Spillars also said officials know some of the people on the missing list are dead. She wouldn't say how many or say when names of the deceased would be released.

One example of the potential overlap: 12 residents of the Greenbriar Nursing Home are listed as missing. But nursing home administrators reported earlier that 11 people died in the tornado; only one resident was known missing.

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Conversely, the first person on the list is very much alive. The Associated Press found 75-year-old Sally Adams sitting on a wooden chair and cuddling her pet cat Thursday. When AP told Adams she was listed as missing, she laughed and said "Get me off of there!"

Neighbors rescued Adams on Sunday after the storm destroyed her house and took her to a friend's home. Her relatives had called a hot line and posted Facebook messages saying Adams was missing. Adams said she lost her cell phone in the storm and had no way to reassure family.

Officials said previously they believe people who are unaccounted for aren't necessarily dead or trapped in debris. They say many are probably safe and but failed to tell friends and family where they are. Cell phone service in Joplin remains spotty. Officials released a list naming all of the missing people soon after the press conference.

The death toll rose Thursday to 126 people, not all of them identified, and officials have estimated more than 900 were injured.

Some families have complained about not being allowed into the morgue to try to identify missing relatives. Asked about that Thursday, Don Bloom, the deputy commander for family assistance for the mortuary team, said "the process has to take it's time. We have to be 100 percent accurate."

Search-and-rescue teams have made multiple sweeps through the destruction, using dozens of dogs and listening devices in hopes of picking up the faint sound of anyone still alive beneath the collapsed homes and businesses. No new survivors have been pulled from the rubble since Tuesday.

The list of the missing was checked against shelter populations, the Safe and Well list run by the American Red Cross, federal agencies, lists of hospital patients, ambulance logs and cell phone companies, Spillars said.

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An increasingly desperate group of people in Joplin are pleading for help in tracking down one of the dwindling number of people still missing in the wake of Sunday's storm, which leveled much of the southwest Missouri city and now ranks as the nation's single deadliest tornado since the National Weather Service started keeping records.

They're scrawling signs in wreckage, calling in by the hundreds to local radio stations and posting on the Internet. They are inspiring city officials to continue search and rescue efforts, yet there is no talk yet of recovery.

"I am hopeful," Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles said. "We've had stories from earthquakes and tsunamis and other disasters of people being found two or three weeks later, and we are hopeful we'll have a story like that to tell."

Randles and others leading the search effort say it's impossible to know exactly how many people are truly missing, since many may have simply left the area without getting in touch with their families. They believe most will be OK.

Amid that confusion, away from formal grid searches in the debris fields, children are looking for their parents and friends are searching for neighbors in any way they can.

With erratic cell phone service throughout Joplin and travel hindered by damaged cars and blocked streets, many residents have turned to local radio stations as a hub of information, sifting through around-the-clock reports of missing family members.

The Zimmer Radio Group, which operates seven radio stations in Joplin, abandoned its various music formats for 24-hour tornado coverage starting late Sunday afternoon. Newscaster Chad Elliot, whose home was destroyed, slept in his office when he wasn't on the air. His dog Rusty barked loudly behind a closed door.

"I thought we were going to do a normal severe weather broadcast," he said. "Obviously, that's not the case."

Calls flowed in — hundreds of them — from people looking for displaced loved ones, or calling in to say they were OK. By Wednesday, reports of missing friends and relatives were decreasing, replaced by updates of successful, tearful reunions.

"Folks wondering about Larry Allen, who was living near the Stained Glass Theater, he is fine," an announcer said Wednesday afternoon. "He's staying with friends."

Another listener reported, "I want everyone to know that Alice DuBois, 94 years old, is alive and well. We hadn't heard from her until yesterday afternoon. We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers."

Pleas were rampant on social networks.

"This little boy was taken to Memorial Hall," one poster wrote next to a picture posted on KRGZ-FM's Facebook page. "His name is David and all he know's is that his mother's name is Crystal and his brother is Zachary. He was airlifted to Tulsa. Please help find his mom."

Other cries for help were low-tech: A tornado-battered pickup truck was spray-painted with the message, "Looking 4 Zachary Williams Age 12," along with a phone number.

At the Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University, a steady stream of people visited a table where Bill Benson took down the names of people for a "safe and well" database. Some people entered their names; others hoped to find the name of their loved ones in the database.

Benson has seen parents looking for missing children, saying "we had one where a 17-month-old infant was lost." He contacted police and had not heard if the child was found. But more people have come to Benson searching for seniors — more than 100 were listed as missing Wednesday.

At Freeman Hospital, Karen Mitchell waited Wednesday hoping for word on her missing son, Robert Bateson, or her grandson, Abe Khoury. Khoury was found and taken to Freeman, where he was in critical condition. But Mitchell and her family continued to search for Bateson.

When she arrived in Joplin on Tuesday, Mitchell walked through the wreckage of her son's apartment building. She recognized his mattress sitting in a pile. Her family continued to post Bateson's information online. She prayed for a miracle.

"I am waiting on God to tell me where he's at," she said. "God is going to take him to me."

Kathy Watson, a marketing team member and front desk volunteer at Freeman, said the hospital was deluged with calls and visits from searchers, sometimes in vain.

"You want to be able to say, 'Not only do we have your loved one, but they're fine,' but you can't say that," Watson said.