Rescuers comb Oklahoma tornado rubble for buried survivors

A flag is placed in the foundation of a flattened home day after a tornado devastated the town Moore, Oklahoma, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City May 21, 2013. Credit: Reuters
A flag is placed in the foundation of a flattened home day after a tornado devastated the town Moore, Oklahoma, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City May 21, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Rescue workers with sniffer dogs and searchlights picked through the wreckage of a massive tornado to ensure no survivors remained buried in the rubble of primary schools, houses and buildings in an Oklahoma City suburb.

The massive tornado on Monday afternoon flattened entire blocks of the town, killed at least 24 people and injured about 240 in Moore, Oklahoma.

But as dawn approached on Wednesday, officials were increasingly confident that everyone caught in the disaster had been accounted for, despite initial fears that the twister had claimed the lives of more than 90 people.

Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said search-and-rescue dog teams would search for anybody trapped under the rubble, but that attention would also be focused on a huge cleanup job.

“They will continue the searches of areas to be sure nothing is overlooked,” he said. “There’s going to be more of a transition to recovery.”

More than 1,000 people had already registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which sent hundreds of workers to Oklahoma to help with the recovery.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said many more likely needed help but did not have working phones or Internet connections.

“Right now it’s about getting people a place to stay that have lost their homes,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “So we’re going to start going neighborhood to neighborhood and talking to people and seeing what they’re going to need.”

After a long day of searching through shattered homes that was slowed by rainy weather on Tuesday, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan said it seemed no one was missing.

“As far as I know, of the list of people that we have had that they are all accounted for in one way or another,” he said.

Dog teams and members of the National Guard were changing shifts to work through the night.

Nine children were among the 24 killed, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit by the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris of homes, schools and a hospital after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour, leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

Plaza Towers Elementary was one of five schools in its path. “They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out,” Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said. “They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them.”

The National Weather Service upgraded its calculation of the storm’s strength on Tuesday, saying it was a rare EF5, the most powerful ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale

‘I LOOKED UP AND SAW THE TORNADO’

The last time a giant twister tore through the area, on May 3, 1999, it killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also ranked as an EF5.

Oklahoma Emergency Management’s Lojka said 2,400 homes were damaged or obliterated and an estimated 10,000 people affected.

Fugate, the FEMA administrator, told CNN the agency had enough money to pay for Oklahoma’s recovery while still rebuilding in the Northeast from Superstorm Sandy. FEMA had $11.6 billion in its disaster relief fund, a spokesman said.

U.S. Representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, told CBS “This Morning” that the Oklahoma Legislature was drafting a law that would allow the governor to tap into state rainy day funds.

The death toll was lower than might have been expected given the extent of the devastation in Moore, home to 55,000 people. Some ascribe the relatively low number to the fact many locals have small “storm safe” shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.

U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said many people built cellars and safe areas after the 1999 tornado in Moore. “There would have been a lot more people killed, we believe, if they had not had that warning 14 years ago,” he said Tuesday on CNN.

Billy McElrath, 50, of Oklahoma City, said his wife hid in a storm safe in their garage when the tornado hit.

She emerged unhurt even though the storm destroyed the 1968 Corvette convertible she had bought him as a birthday present, and crushed a motorcycle. “Everything else is just trashed,” he said as he loaded a pickup with salvaged goods.

Kraig Boozier, 47, took to his own small shelter in the Westmoor subdivision of Oklahoma City and watched in shock as a fan in the wall was ripped out.

“I looked up and saw the tornado above me,” he said.

When he came out after the storm, he helped a neighbor who had emerged from her own shelter move a car that was blocking the entrance to another neighbor’s shelter.

EARLY WARNING

Officials said another factor behind the surprisingly low death toll was the early warning, with meteorologists saying days in advance that a storm system was forming.

Once a tornado was forming, people had 15 to 20 minutes of warning, which meant they could take shelter or flee the projected path. The weather service also has new, sterner warnings about deadly tornadoes to get people’s attention.

Many of those who do not have a basic storm shelter at home, which can cost $2,500 to $5,000, have learned from warnings over the year to seek hiding places at home during a tornado.

Jackie Raper, 73, and her daughter, for instance, sought shelter in the bathtub in her house in Oklahoma City.

“The house fell on top of her,” said Caylin Burgett, 16, who says Raper is like a grandmother to her. Raper broke her arm and femur, and bruised her lungs, Burgett said.

 



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