MOORE, Okla. -- After closing shattered neighborhoods to traffic in the aftermath of Monday’s massive tornado, city officials allowed residents with proper IDs to drive to what remained of their homes Wednesday to retrieve belongings.
During a midday briefing officials said the disaster toll continued to mount:
Property damage from the storm could reach $2 billion, with 12,000 to 13,000 homes damaged or destroyed, local officials announced.
More than 33,000 people were directly affected by a tornado that tore a 17-mile-long, 1.3-mile-wide path through this Oklahoma City suburb of about 55,000 people.
PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma
Of the 24 people killed, 10 were children, including two infants and seven schoolchildren.
"The numbers of this event are becoming even more staggering,’’ Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told reporters at Moore’s City Hall.
A few search-and-rescue crews continued to look for possible survivors – or corpses – in Moore, officials said. But Cornett said the rescue effort in Oklahoma City, where four of the deaths occurred, had ended.
The focus Wednesday was on removing debris and getting assistance to residents who lost homes or other property. Neighborhoods slammed by the storm remained clogged with the mud-streaked remains of shattered homes, cars, trucks, buildings and vegetation.
"A big need now is debris removal,’’ U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told reporters at City Hall. She said federal funds would pay 85% of debris removal costs for the first 30 days and 80% for the next 60 days.
"People are really hurting,’’ Napolitano said. "There’s a lot of recovery yet to do.’’
She added: "We will be here to stay until this recovery is complete.’’
Local officials deflected criticism of tornado preparations. They said every possible precaution was taken to protect lives and property from a storm classified by the National Weather Service as an EF-5, the strongest possible rating, with winds exceeding 200 mph.
Albert Ashwood, the state emergency director, called the tornado "an anomaly of severe weather."
"This is the anomaly that flattens everything to the ground," he said.
"Everything was done that could be done at the time’’ to prepare for the twister, Ashwood said.
No local laws require emergency shelters in homes, schools or businesses in Moore, although the city website recommends such "safe rooms."
Neither Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was destroyed by the tornado, nor Briarwood Elementary, which was also damaged, were equipped with a safe room, according to Ashwood.
The state has paid for safe rooms in about 100 schools, he said, but neither Plaza Towers nor Briarwood were on the list to receive the shelters. He said Oklahoma has more federally funded safe rooms in schools than any other state.
Susan Pierce, superintendent of the Moore Public School District, told reporters that school officials had implemented comprehensive tornado shelter procedures before the tornado struck.
"We’re in the process of learning as much as we can about what has happened, and we are reviewing our emergency procedures,’’ Pierce said Tuesday.
More than $12 million from a joint state and federal fund has been spent for $2,000 rebates to state residents who install safe rooms, Ashwood said. Officials are trying to get renewed funding for the program, which was instituted after a devastating tornado swept through the area in 1999, he said.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, asked at Wednesday’s news conference whether she favored requiring tornado shelters, replied, "We aren’t going to require people to do anything."
Instead, she said, she favored encouraging residents to install safe rooms or shelters. The state is instituting a program to allow contributors to the relief effort to direct contributions to construction of tornado shelters, Fallin said.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said he supported passing a local ordinance requiring tornado shelters in new homes and buildings. Noting that he had survived two powerful tornadoes, Lewis said, "I’m going to get one."
He added: "That’s the way most people feel" in Moore.
Cornett, the Oklahoma City mayor, said the Big 12 Conference baseball tournament will begin Thursday morning after being delayed a day by the storm. He called the tournament "an appropriate diversion’’ for the shattered city’s morale.
But the mayor also warned of long, difficult days ahead.
"I’ll be throwing out the first pitch at 9 and then attending the first funeral at 10,’’ he said.
Why so many tornadoes near Oklahoma City?
Oklahoma begins long road to recovery
Amid tornado destruction, hunt for survivors persists