Archive for Monday, May 20, 2013

Crews race to find survivors of Oklahoma twister

May 20, 2013, 5:24 p.m. Updated May 21, 2013, 1:59 p.m.


— Emergency crews searched the broken remnants of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday for survivors of a massive tornado that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children, and those numbers were expected to climb.

The state medical examiner's office cut the estimated death toll by more than half but warned that the number was likely to climb again. Gov. Mary Fallin said authorities did not know how many people were still missing, but vowed to account for every resident.

"We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength," said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as "hard to look at."

Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

"It was a very eventful night," Elliott said. "I truly expect that they'll find more today."

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

New search-and-rescue teams moved at dawn Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who had worked all night. A helicopter shined a spotlight from above to aid in the search.

Many houses have "just been taken away. They're just sticks and bricks," the governor said, describing the 17-mile path of destruction.

The National Weather Service said the twister was on the ground for 40 minutes, with winds estimated at 190 mph. The agency issued an initial finding that the tornado was EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale — the second strongest type of tornado — and that it was at least half a mile wide.

Emergency crews were having trouble navigating neighborhoods because the devastation is so complete, and there are no street signs left standing, Fallin added.

Fire Chief Gary Bird said fresh teams would search the whole community at least two more times to ensure that no survivors — or any of the dead — were overlooked. Crews painted an 'X' on each structure to note it had been checked.

"That is to confirm we have done our due diligence for this city, for our citizens," Bird said.

The community of 56,000 people, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, braced for another long, harrowing day.

"As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors," said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

More than 200 people had been treated at area hospitals.

Other search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.

Fallin said she arrived in Moore late Monday and observed the search and rescue operation at the school.

"It was very surreal coming upon the school because there was no school," she said at the Tuesday news conference.

Earlier, she described her astonishment at the destruction, saying: "It would be remarkable for anyone to survive."

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.

Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said Tuesday.

Many parents of missing schoolchildren initially came to St. Andrews United Methodist Church, which had been set up as a meeting site. But only high school students were brought to the church, causing confusion and frustration among parents of students enrolled at Plaza Towers. They were redirected to a Baptist church several miles away.

"It was very emotional — some people just holding on to each other, crying because they couldn't find a child; some people being angry and expressing it verbally" by shouting at one another, said D.A. Bennett, senior pastor at St. Andrews.

After hearing that the tornado was headed toward another school called Briarwood Elementary, David Wheeler left work and drove 100 mph through blinding rain and gusting wind to find his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. When he got to the school site, "it was like the earth was wiped clean, like the grass was just sheared off," Wheeler said.

Eventually, he found Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him. His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head — but he was alive. As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood were initially sent to the halls, but a third-grade teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — thought it didn't look safe and so ushered the children into a closet, he said.

The teacher shielded Gabriel with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces, Wheeler said.

"She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down," Wheeler said.

The tornado also grazed a theater, and leveled countless homes. Authorities were still trying to determine the full scope of the damage.

Roofs were torn off houses, exposing metal rods left twisted like pretzels. Cars sat in heaps, crumpled and sprayed with caked-on mud. Insulation and siding was smashed up against the sides of any walls that remained standing. Yards were littered with pieces of wood, nails and pieces of electric poles.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

"Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school," he said Tuesday.

The town of Moore "needs to get everything it needs right away," he added.

Obama spoke following a meeting with his disaster-response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and top White House officials.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, including the Moore area.

In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud can be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churns through the community, the twister scatters shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.

Monday's tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998.

The 1999 storm damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses. Two or three schools were also hit, but "the kids were out of school, so there were no concerns," recalled City Manager Steve Eddy.

At the time of Monday's storm, the City Council was meeting. Local leaders watched the twister approaching on television before taking shelter in the bathroom.

"We blew our sirens probably five or six times," Eddy said. "We knew it was going to be significant, and there were a lot of curse words flying."

Betty Snider, 81, scrambled inside with her son and husband. She put her husband, who recently had a stroke, in a bathroom, but there wasn't room for both of them. So she and her son huddled in a hallway.

"That is the loudest roar I've ever heard in my life," she said.

She said she didn't have time to do anything. She couldn't duck, couldn't cover her ears, couldn't find another place to hide.

She said this was the closest a twister had ever come to her house, which remained standing.

Monday's twister also came almost exactly two years after an enormous tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

Associated Press writers Tim Talley and Ramit Plushnik Masti; and Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki contributed to this report.


Curtis Lange 4 years, 6 months ago

I know they were still looking for missing elementary school students. Hopefully every one of them turn up safe!

Curtis Lange 4 years, 6 months ago

Looks like the earlier rumors were true and children did die at that elementary school. Sad.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 6 months ago

(Not meant to imply that I am in favor of that cost cutting measure.)

Sherry Warren 4 years, 6 months ago

ours did, and by the time I was in high school we has changed to going down there for tornado drills. The elem school was in the other end, and high schoolers met the elem kids and took a hand and we hustled down. It was scary down there, but better than the hallways. Never actually had to do it for real in high school, but I recall cowering and crying in the hall as a lil one when the real think came about a mile from school.

northtowngrl 4 years, 6 months ago

Clay soil. building a basement would wreck a foundation and make a house unstable.

kernal 4 years, 6 months ago

I don't quite catch your meaning northtowngrl. The soil in Lawrence,south of the river, is mostly clay and there are plenty of houses with basements; and, they are not unstable.

otto 4 years, 6 months ago

Not sure why but it is not typical to have a basement in this part of OK, I've heard it has to do with the soil.

kernal 4 years, 6 months ago

That's interesting. Two of my great grandparents, and great great grandparents, built their homes in the late 1800's with basements. They were still in good condition in the 1960's. That was just north of Oklahoma City.

otto 4 years, 6 months ago

Guess they worked harder back then, now everyone is too lazy to dig.

bad_dog 4 years, 6 months ago

With all the mechanical equipment available to dig basements sans shovels, that observation has to be either one of the least informed or laziest I've ever seen. If someone wants a freaking basement under their home, they have a contractor perform the work when the house is built. The homeowners don't sit around the dinner table after the fact, wringing their hands and bemoaning the diminution of the work ethic I can just hear them now: "How would we ever get the Erie Canal dug today?".

But don't let me disrupt your Faux fantasy.

arch007bak 4 years, 6 months ago

The explanation I've heard tonight is that the bed rock there is very close to the surface and very hard/dense making it very difficult to excavate. Multiple times tonight I've heard those that live in the area say it takes explosives to excavate it. I have wondered that same thing myself every time I see a tornado hit Oklahoma or Texas.

Richard Payton 4 years, 6 months ago

The soil in Oklahoma isn't soil but clay which tears up concrete basements. The reason Florida doesn't have basements is another reason because of water issues. Many of these area's are beginning to build safe rooms.

riverdrifter 4 years, 6 months ago

The toll is over fifty now and keep going up. The situation at the grade school is awful. I have still not gotten a response from friends in Moore via email nor phone.

riverdrifter 4 years, 6 months ago

Thanks. Tried it but they are not registered. I'll keep trying.

riverdrifter 4 years, 6 months ago

My friends answered: "Yes, we road it out in the storm safe I built after the May'99 toronado. It missed us by about a mile. We have no land lines, internet, tv, or water but are very lucky to have come through with no damage. So many others have not been so lucky."

50YearResident 4 years, 6 months ago

Can you explain this comment, I'm not sure what you mean by "your God".

Wprcky Mtn 4 years, 6 months ago

I was down there in a 'safe room' at Oklahoma City Community College when this tornado came thru today...about 3-4 miles away from it. Just an inside room with no windows...don't think it would have survived a direct hit.....

Jeanette Kekahbah 4 years, 6 months ago

was up to 2.5 miles wide at one point. friends of mine lost pets, homes and cars down there and are grateful to be alive. am eager to help...

jackpot 4 years, 6 months ago

What is it with May 20th Tornadoes? Ruskin Heights Tornado of May 20 1957 Hope that the 51 is all that were killed, afraid it's not.

Claire Williams 4 years, 6 months ago

I've been running an update thread for the tornado here: I will be going to bed now as I've been on this for 7 hours now, and it's getting to me.

Tomorrow, I'd like to see if we can organize a dropoff of water, food and cash to be delivered to Moore. Be back in the morning.

Mike Ford 4 years, 6 months ago

I have two mclouth high classmates one at 49th and south Penn in okc and one in Southwest Norman whom we contacted. My classmate on South Penn saw it go by about six miles to the south of him. he lives just north of 244. my wife and I have eaten a couple of times at the Panda Garden and Freddy's in front of that stadium theatre in Moore after going to thunder games. it's just crazy. we were there at newcastle at the end of april after a thunder game and I hit the jackpot at the chickasaw casino that was hit when the storm started. a couple of days after the Joplin tornado this area was under the gun for tornadoes as my friend on south penn went to a shelter. the downed cell towers reminded me of trying to reach family on the gulf coast after katrina not being able to get through. this is just tragic. what bothers me is how there is such denial of climate change down there after the 1999, 2003, and 2013 tornadoes in Moore . three stronger storms in 14 years is not coincedence.

Budgets_Smudgets 4 years, 6 months ago

Just saw Oklahoma US Senator Jim Inhofe interviewed.

What was not asked, nor explained by Inhofe today, was his vote against FEMA relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Ironic? Or moronic? or both.

Phoghorn 4 years, 6 months ago

That bill had a huge amount of pork, and a very small amount of funding dedicated to Sandy. That is why it was vetoed. It was relief bill in name alone. Likewise, if the Republicans bring their own pork laden bill with very little funding for Oklahoma, it should be vetoed as well, regardless of what they call it.

Relief, not pork please.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 4 years, 6 months ago

I was taken aback by them news media reports that the soil in Oklahoma required explosives to remove. THis is pure crap.

My next door neighbors in Lawton had a storm shelter that I spent a few hours in. My neighbor across the street had a basement, and I know of others in town that had basements. Othough they are not common to every house, they do exist and the news that the soil in Oklahoma required such efforts to remove is patently wrong. Just more of the neews media hype.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 6 months ago

I am sure that the soil and bedrock in Oklahoma varies a great deal, just as it does in Kansas. My father had a tri-level home built in St. Francis, in western Kansas in 1963, and although the home does not have a basement in the conventional sense, dynamite was required to remove the bedrock in order to build the home according to the plans. That was a surprise and an additional expense for the builder. But, it made for a very sturdy house, since part of the foundation rests on solid bedrock.

And, only a block away, another home construction project presented difficulties when it was discovered that the water table was only a few feet under the surface. Construction proceeded anyway, pilings were driven down into the earth, and the home was built atop them. There was some discussion about how stable that house was going to be over the years, but it's still in fine shape, since the 1960s. But, needless to say, it does not have a basement.

50YearResident 4 years, 6 months ago

Maybe it is the water table that prevents most basements,

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