Rescuers search Oklahoma tornado town ruins as recovery starts
Rescue workers with sniffer dogs picked through the ruins of an Oklahoma town on Wednesday to ensure no survivors remained buried after a deadly tornado left thousands homeless and trying to salvage what was left of their belongings.
“Yesterday I was numb. Today I cried a lot. Now I'm on the victory side of it,” said Beth Vrooman, who hid in a shelter in her garage during Monday's storm in Moore, Oklahoma.
When the winds died down, she realized a car was blocking her exit.
“It took some muscle, but I got out,” Vrooman said, as she sifted through piles of clothing, broken knickknacks and nail-studded boards that had once been her home.
The tornado on Monday afternoon flattened entire blocks of the town, including schools, a hospital and other buildings.
At least 24 people were killed and 240 others injured, but authorities 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.
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“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.
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.
TEN CHILDREN AMONG DEAD
The state medical examiner on Wednesday released details on the people who died in the storm, and reported 10 children, including a four-month-old baby, were among the victims, more than the nine previously reported.
The other children ranged in age from 4 years to 9 years old. The storm's oldest victim, of those whose ages were released, was 63. Most of the victims died of blunt force injuries that were probably caused by flying debris and five of the children died from suffocation.
Most of the children were 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 after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour (320 kph), leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles (23 km) long and 1.3 miles (2 km) wide.
The National Weather Service said the tornado was ranked a rare EF5, the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
STORM SAFE SHELTERS
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 topped the scale.
Oklahoma Emergency Management's Lojka said 2,400 homes were damaged or obliterated and an estimated 10,000 people affected.
The death toll was lower than might have been expected given the extent of the devastation in Moore, home to 55,000 people.
Some ascribed the relatively few deaths to many people having small “storm safe” shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.
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.
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 coming.
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.
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.
Additional reporting by Alice Mannette, Lindsay Morris, Nick Carey, Brendan O'Brien, Greg McCune, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Jane Sutton; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool