Residents returned to piles of debris where their homes once stood and rescue workers used dogs to sniff through rubble in search of survivors after a tornado two miles wide flattened an Oklahoma City suburb. At least 24 people died and 237 were injured, authorities said.
The storm cut a swath of devastation 20 miles long that ran through Moore, a town of 55,000, destroying buildings including the Plaza Towers Elementary School and a medical center. Winds as strong as 200 miles per hour ripped off roofs and twisted sheet metal around snapped-off trees and utility poles. President Obama called it “one of the most destructive tornadoes in history.”
Gov. Mary Fallin, who surveyed the damage by air, said entire blocks were wiped out. The lack of street signs and debris made it difficult to tell where structures had been, she said at a news briefing Tuesday. State lawmakers were already at work on legislation to enable the use of the state’s rainy-day fund to pay for recovery, she said. The fund totals $660 million, according to the Associated Press.
Officials planned to finish sweeping for survivors by nightfall.
“There ain’t nothing left, nothing,” said Patrick Duffy, 62, a computer programmer, as he and his wife, Kathern, sifted through a four-foot pile of soggy insulation, mud, leaves, a single shoe, a torn book and a broken table lamp – all that was left of their three-bedroom, ranch-style home. “This will all have to be scraped away.”
The state medical examiner’s office has received 24 bodies, Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer, said. Bill Citty of the Oklahoma City Police Department said there may be more deaths. Earlier reports had pegged the toll as high as 91.
Christina Morris, 45, said she, her husband, her sister and 4-year-old niece crowded into a tiny bedroom closet as the tornado bore down on their one-story house, causing it to shake and sway. It sounded like 40 freight trains, she said.
“We’re not churchgoers, but we prayed,” she said in an interview today on her front porch. “We prayed to my mother to watch over us. She passed away a few years ago.”
The twister’s center passed just north of their house, blowing out their back windows and covering the kitchen wall with mud. A car bumper was deposited about 20 feet up in a front-yard tree. Two short blocks away, the medical center took a direct hit, its windows blown out and parts of the building façade toppled.
“We’re lucky,” Morris said. “A lot of other people around here weren’t.”
Mark Ellerd, 49, took shelter at a movie theater across from his home of 23 years and emerged to find his roof and walls torn away. After the storm passed, he pulled a tent and other camping gear from the wreckage of a shed and spent the night in his front yard. He said he’s seen four tornadoes in the vicinity, including the 1999 twister that passed within a few miles.
“I’m glad I was here, I experienced it,” he said. “I’m glad I lived.”
Residents mourned those who didn’t, and communities began mobilizing to help one another. Donations began pouring in, including a $1 million gift to the American Red Cross from Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder of the National Basketball Association. The team also donated the same amount to relief efforts. Churches opened their doors, and the University of Oklahoma said it would provide housing for displaced families.
The state set up a website to help those affected find services, said Fallin, a 58-year-old Republican. State employees who lost their homes would be given 15 days of leave, she said, adding that she wasn’t aware of any who lost their lives or loved ones.
“This was the storm of storms,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mike Cornett said at the news briefing.
Moore was also hit hard by a tornado in 1999, with the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface. The suburb is a middle-class community with an average household income of $64,297 in 2010, well above the national average of $50,221, according to city budget documents and U.S. Census data.
Susan Pierce, superintendent of the Moore Public School district, the third largest in the state, said the twister wouldn’t ruin graduations for the town’s three high schools. They’ll take place as planned in downtown Oklahoma City this weekend, she said.
With assistance from Tom Korosec and Mark Niquette in Moore, Oklahoma, Brian K. Sullivan in Boston, Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas, James Rowley and Roger Runningen in Washington, Noah Buhayar in New York, Michael B. Marois in Sacramento and Pete Young and Douglas MacMillan in San Francisco. Editors: Mark Schoifet, William Glasgall.