Oklahoma begins to recover as crews plow through piles of debris to rescue victims

President offers aid to rebuild

5/22/2013
BLADE NEWS SERVICES
An aerial view of an entire neighborhood in Moore, Okla., illustrates the severity of Monday's tornado. The twister roared through the Oklahoma City suburb on a 20-mile path of destruction.
An aerial view of an entire neighborhood in Moore, Okla., illustrates the severity of Monday's tornado. The twister roared through the Oklahoma City suburb on a 20-mile path of destruction.

MOORE, Okla. — State and local officials vowed to rebuild an Oklahoma City suburb, shattered by a tornado that brought death and massive destruction, even as they fought poor weather to push ahead with rescue efforts.

Officials including Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis pledged to continue to search every piece of property three times to account for all survivors and the missing.

“We will rebuild and we will regain our strength,” said Ms. Fallin, who had just taken an aerial tour of the path of the tornado that swept through the area Monday. The storm carved a 20-mile-long swath of damage.

“It was hard to look at so much debris on the ground,” she said of the damage zone, which was about two miles wide. “In many places, homes have been taken away. It is just sticks and bricks. Street signs are gone.”

Officials were still trying to figure out the number of casualties and the cost of damaged property from the tornado that followed almost the same route as the deadly storm of May 3, 1999. About 46 people were killed in the earlier tornado.

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Lea Bessinger salvages a picture of Jesus as she and her son, Josh Bessinger, sort through the rubble of Ms. Bessinger's home in Moore, Okla. Some residents returned Tuesday to assess the damage.
Lea Bessinger salvages a picture of Jesus as she and her son, Josh Bessinger, sort through the rubble of Ms. Bessinger's home in Moore, Okla. Some residents returned Tuesday to assess the damage.

State officials said at least 24 bodies had been taken to the medical examiner’s office since Monday, including those of nine children, most of whom were killed when the tornado destroyed the Plaza Towers Elementary School. At least seven students died at the school, one of five schools in the area to be damaged by the storm.

On Monday night the death toll was put much higher, at 51, but state officials Tuesday morning revised the count downward, blaming communications problems for some double counting. Ms. Fallin said 237 people had been injured “so far as we know.”

Officials were hesitant to give exact numbers, saying the situation remained too unclear as rescue and recovery efforts continued.

“We don’t have any firm numbers,” Ms. Fallin said. “Bodies have been taken to the medical examiner’s office. We have also heard that bodies were taken to local funeral homes. We hope to have better numbers on that.”

Still, after nearly 24 hours of searching, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said he was confident there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.

“I’m 98 percent sure we’re good,” Chief Bird said.

In the heart of the devastation stood the remnants of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where, according to Mayor Lewis, seven students were killed when a cinder block wall collapsed on them during the tornado.

Scores of children and their teachers survived by crowding into a girls’ bathroom, with the teachers lying on top of multiple small children as the 200-mph winds of the maelstrom removed the roof.

Addison Roberts, 7, climbed out of the debris of Plaza Towers unscathed, and Tuesday night sat eating dinner with her family in front of her destroyed home. She complained about the quality of cheese on her ham-and-cheese sandwich.

She was rock solid through all the turmoil, said her grandfather, Jack Eldred. When her dad came to pick her up after the tornado, “She was patting him on the back, saying, ‘It’s OK, Dad!’”

“He was crying!” Addison added.

Rescue workers combed through the rubble Monday night and Tuesday morning using spotlights from helicopters.
Rescue workers combed through the rubble Monday night and Tuesday morning using spotlights from helicopters.

The city of 55,000, about 11 miles south on I-35 from Oklahoma City, is coping with the infrastructure and communication problems common in natural disasters — power outages, gas leaks, lack of water, poor cell phone service.

One of the first things rescue workers did Tuesday was put up street signs.

“You can’t tell where you’re at. The whole city looks like a debris field,” Mr. Lewis said.

“No one possibly could have survived this,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, describing his thoughts while touring the damaged areas Tuesday. “And yet, we know they did. We know people crawled out of that rubble. We’re talking levels of debris 4 feet high as far as the eye can see.”

More than 200 responders worked through the night, especially around the Plaza school, Chief Bird said. But they had to be pulled off the search several times because of danger posed by lightning.

Persistent thunderstorms hampered recovery efforts Tuesday and weather forecasts were not encouraging with severe rain and possible hail expected. The National Weather Service also noted that there was a possibility of more tornadoes in Oklahoma and other states.

Officials warned people to stay out of devastated zones so that property could be checked and re-checked for survivors. The few civilians who had trickled in took cover where they could when the rains hit, though in some parts of town, there were no more roofs and awnings to hide under.

Emergency workers continued their search-and-rescue work, which, with restrictive checkpoints, has paralyzed residents’ return as much as the damage has.

A National Guard member prohibited reporters from following a long column of rescuers into one of Moore’s ruined neighborhoods.

Between bouts of hostile weather, Hazel Swain, 82, and her brother, John, 80, barely escaped another round of lightning and punishing rains. The siblings had remained in their apartment during the storm but hadn’t taken cover, instead huddling under a quilt.

“We heard this noise and it was over,” Ms. Swain said. They said they had decided Monday not to leave the apartment during the chaotic aftermath. “We didn’t think that would be wise,” she said. But eventually they had to go.

“Who would’ve thought we would have to come back for clothes?” she asked. They were packed into a small bag — the only thing carried away by the brother and sister.

And as they made the long, precarious walk to their car — nudging past splintered two-by-fours, crushed cinder blocks, collapsed power lines — military officials warned them to hurry, or else another thunderstorm would hit them with 60 mph gusts.

“I don’t know where we’ll stay,” Ms. Swain fretted.

President Obama pledged that his administration would do all that it could to ease the pain of Monday’s tornadoes. His televised statement came in addition to calls Monday and Tuesday to state and local officials offering help.

“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes,” Mr. Obama said. “For there are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention.”

Local officials praised the Obama Administration response.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said his agency was prepared to back up state and local efforts.

“It is unfortunate we are seeing once again what tornadoes can do,” he said.