MOORE, Okla. – State and local officials vowed to rebuild this bereft suburb, shattered by a tornado that brought death and massive destruction, even as they fought poor weather to push ahead with rescue efforts.
At an afternoon news conference, 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 Fallin, who said she 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.”
PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma
Officials were still trying to figure out the number of casualties and the cost of damaged property from the tornado that eerily followed almost the same route as the deadly storm of May 3, 1999. About 46 people were killed in the earlier tornado, which caused more than $1 billion in 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. More than 120 people have been injured, but that figure, too, is expected to rise.
MAP: Path of destruction
Officials at the news conference 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,” 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.”
More than 200 responders worked through the night, especially around the Plaza school, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird told reporters. But they had to be pulled off the search several times because of danger posed by lightning.
Persistent thunderstorms hampered recovery efforts throughout Tuesday morning 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 some parts of Oklahoma and other states.
Officials warned people to stay out the 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, as lightning threatened overhead and power line poles lay draped over the road.
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,” Hazel 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?” asked Hazel. 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 Impala -- 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,” Hazel fretted.
Then the heavens again opened up, and the survivors once again took cover.
Earlier Tuesday, 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.