MOORE, Okla. – Residents on Wednesday attempted to return to lives wrecked two days ago by a major tornado, as search and rescue operations began slowly to turn into the first steps to a long recovery.
In a first since Monday -- when a tornado carrying winds of more than 200 miles an hour plowed this Oklahoma city suburb -- there was sustained sunshine, and the city seemed to catch its breath and slowly exhale as residents surveyed the work that lay ahead: burying at least 24 who died in the tornado, healing the hundreds who were physically injured and others who were emotionally scarred, clearing out the mountains of rubble and then rebuilding.
“The normal transition is from search and rescue to recovery,” Andy Oden, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, told the Los Angeles Times. Coordinated services such as distributing tetanus shots and bringing in mental health professionals were underway, he said.
PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma
Although search efforts were continuing, officials said they believed the current toll of human life would remain about the same. At least 24 bodies have been recovered, a number that has been constant for more than 24 hours. Of that number, 10 were children, one as young as 4 months, according to state officials.
The number of injured, however, has shot up to more than 240, including those hospitalized and others who were treated and released. More than 2,400 homes were damaged or simply eliminated, while as many as 10,000 people in this city of 55,000 were dislocated after the storm.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is scheduled to tour damaged areas along with Gov. Mary Fallin.
“She'll understand the size of the challenge that we're facing,” Fallin told reporters Wednesday morning. “We have a long road ahead of us.”
Dump trucks were lined up in single file as workers continued to remove debris from an area that was essentially flattened by fierce winds from the tornado, now officially classified as an EF5, the highest step on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
Estimates of the damage were in excess of $2 billion, according to the state Insurance Department, making this week’s storm the most expensive in the state’s history, surpassing the more than $1 billion of damage caused by the tornado of May 3, 1999.
“Just since I left last night,” the governor said, “I can see a big difference in some of the debris piles. We have to clean up the damage before we can rebuild.”
Residents have largely been kept out of their neighborhoods by a cordon of National Guard troops and police officers. But some have begun to return.
Newt Case, 60, a retired mechanic, stood in his yard early Wednesday, smoking a cigarette and looking over his debris-strewn yard. He watched, wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt, as men in Army uniforms drove down his street in an all-terrain vehicle. He and his wife, Arlene, knew all the backr oads and could get to their house even with military blockades on the corners.
A neighbor used a black plastic rake to clean his yard. Case had raked the previous day, but it didn't get rid of all the insulation, the pieces of homes.
“We've got a whole lot more to do,” he said. “But that's all right. We'll get to it.” The city will rebuild, he said, as it always does.
More than 1,000 people already have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has sent hundreds of workers to help with the recovery. President Obama, in public comments and in private telephone calls to officials, has said the nation will stand with Moore.
“Right now, it's about getting people a place to stay that have lost their homes,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” program. “So we're going to start going neighborhood to neighborhood and talking to people and seeing what they're going to need.”
At least 10 children were among those killed, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School. The school was directly in the path of the tornado, which cut a scar about 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide through the area.
The 1999 tornado killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also was classified as an EF5.
Branson-Potts reported from Moore, and Muskal reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo in Moore contributed to this report.
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