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Amid Oklahoma tornado devastation, hunt for survivors persists

The strength of the tornado is upgraded to an EF-5 as the official death toll is lowered to 24. The fate of two elementary schools raises questions about why neither had a tornado-safe room.

May 21, 2013|By David Zucchino, Matt Pearce and Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Entire neighborhoods in Moore, Okla., were destroyed by the tornado, which killed at least 24 people and injured at least 237.
Entire neighborhoods in Moore, Okla., were destroyed by the tornado, which… (Tannen Maury / European…)

MOORE, Okla. — The grueling recovery from a killer tornado began Tuesday as search-and-rescue operations continued, but authorities acknowledged that the likelihood of finding anyone alive grew dimmer by the moment.

In a rare bit of good news, the state medical examiner slashed the confirmed death tally in half. On Monday night, officials had pegged it at 51, including 20 children, and said the toll would grow. But some victims had been counted more than once, officials said Tuesday, as they reported the number of deaths at 24, including nine children.

Seven of the dead youngsters were from the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which rescuers continued to comb for survivors.

Neither Plaza Towers nor the damaged Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City had a tornado-safe room.

"They will not declare that structure clear until they are down to the ground and have been through every piece of rubble," Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said of Plaza Towers.

Authorities promised to check every property and piece of land three times before calling off the search for survivors.

At least 237 people were injured.

The National Weather Service upgraded the twister one level of magnitude to EF-5, the top step on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with wind speeds of 210 mph. An EF-5 includes "incredible phenomena," with strong frame houses swept away and automobile-sized missiles flying more than 100 yards, the weather service says.

That proved true here. The tornado, which touched down shortly before 3 p.m. and stayed on the ground about 50 minutes, reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble. The preliminary number of damaged or destroyed homes stood at 2,800, state officials said. The weather service said the storm's track was 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

Sheets of rain poured down on the Oklahoma City area all day, hampering recovery efforts and drenching the already muddy region littered with children's toys, insulation and trees stripped bare of bark.

Inside the disaster area, Josephine Owings picked anxiously through the rubble of what used to be her house.

Slogging through mud and debris, her son and daughter-in-law tried to salvage waterlogged fabric rolls from the sewing business she ran from her home in Moore. They found a flat-screen television still in its box, slick with mud.

Owings, 62, tiptoed through torn insulation and shattered beams to collect Christmas decorations. "Everybody gets a stocking this Christmas!" she announced.

On Monday, Owings and her two dogs had huddled under a stairway as the tornado ripped her two-story rental home off its foundation and reduced it to splinters. When the twister retreated, all that remained was the stairway.

Owings had been crouched in the bathroom as the storm approached until her daughter-in-law called and ordered her to get under the stairs.

"The whole house started moving and lifting," Owings said Tuesday. "I thought it was going to lift me right out with it."

She couldn't sleep Monday night, she said. She kept reliving the storm.

Local, state and national officials pledged to lend resources in the recovery efforts even as national charities solicited donations to help the storm-ravaged areas.

"As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead," President Obama said in a White House statement. The country will "stand with our fellow citizens as long as it takes."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency urged displaced residents to contact its office for housing assistance, while the state insurance commissioner set up a place for residents to go with insurance questions.

A coalition of faith-based groups brought a truck that serves 30,000 meals a day and a chain-saw-wielding debris-cleanup team. A state representative wearing a wide cowboy hat gave out his cellphone number on national television, urging constituents to call him with their needs.

At the New Life Bible Church in nearby Norman on Tuesday night, some survivors gathered to pray. "There is no easy way to explain things like pain in this life," senior pastor Alan Danielson told them. "I don't know why God allows tornadoes ... but I know that God is with us."

Earlier, in Moore, people drove around in trucks handing out water, burgers and pizzas, while a small crew of volunteers set up a barbecue in front of Dick's Sporting Goods.

Lori Neidel and her sister Melissa, whose homes were untouched, picked through soggy debris in search of neighbors' lost belongings, hoping to ease their friends' pain and loss.

"It's not really the house that's lost," Lori Neidel said. "It's all the stuff inside that you can never replace."

Despite the chaos and destruction, Moore tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy, announcing that high school graduations would proceed this weekend as planned.

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