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Oklahoma turns to mammoth task of cleanup after tornado

As details of victims emerge, residents of Moore, Okla., begin hauling away animal carcasses, trashed cars and the debris from 13,000 homes battered by the tornado.

May 22, 2013|By David Zucchino, Hailey Branson-Potts and Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times
  • Pastor Roger Murphy of OKC Faith Church in Oklahoma City unloads donated goods to be distributed to victims of the tornado in nearby Moore.
Pastor Roger Murphy of OKC Faith Church in Oklahoma City unloads donated… (Ed Zurga / European Pressphoto…)

MOORE, Okla. — Under a sunny sky, residents of this Oklahoma City suburb began cleaning up debris from the monstrous tornado that inflicted death and destruction — bodies of animals, overturned cars, homes reduced to rubble — as more information emerged about the human victims.

The twister killed 24 people, the state medical examiner said Wednesday, 10 of them children, including two infants. The dead ranged from a 4-month-old boy to a 70-year-old woman and included two 9-year-olds who were best friends. The causes of death were primarily blunt-force trauma and asphyxiation. All of the missing had been accounted for.

Officials also updated their estimate of damaged or destroyed homes to 13,000, affecting 33,000 people and causing up to $2 billion in damage.

"The numbers of this event are becoming even more staggering," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told reporters at Moore City Hall.

Some details about the victims emerged. The infants, 4-month-old Case Futrell and 7-month-old Sydnee Vargyas, died of head injuries, the medical examiner said. Of the other eight children, who ranged in age from 4 to 9, six died of suffocation and two from massive trauma. Seven were killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which collapsed as students and teachers sought shelter in hallways and restrooms. The school had no tornado-safe room.

Sharon Johnson, a volunteer with the Oklahoma Disaster Relief Chaplaincy, helped break the news Tuesday to families of Plaza Towers third-graders that their children were dead.

Two of the 9-year-olds always held hands, Johnson said. The father of one, she said, "kept saying, 'He was my only child, he was my only child.' … He was just saying, 'He's gone.'"

Johnson said she and other chaplains are trained to be professional, but it's hard to stay composed.

"I held up really good, and then I went outside where there was nobody, and I cried," she said.

One of the victims, Terri Long, 49, was described by friend Linda Webb as a compassionate and involved citizen of Moore. They met a few years ago after Long began volunteering for Webb's nonprofit organization, Ally's House, which raises money for families with children who have cancer.

Whenever the organization put out a call for help, Long was the first to lend a hand, Webb said.

"She'd be out there in the heat, the cold — no matter what," she said. "A volunteer for all seasons."

Meanwhile, at Moore Cemetery, hundreds of volunteers gathered with shovels, rakes and trash bags to clean up for upcoming funerals. Chain saws roared and volunteers gave tetanus shots to those who would be picking up debris. Others cooked food and passed out water as the sweet smell of cedar wood drifted through the air.

It was the first opportunity many of the volunteers had to help, and they jumped at the chance. They wanted to do something, they said. Anything.

"I didn't care if I was cleaning toilets or picking up trash, I just wanted to help," said Mike Carpenter, a Moore resident whose home was unscathed. "That's the Oklahoma spirit."

President Obama will visit the disaster-ravaged area Sunday, and federal and state officials pledged to help for as long as it takes.

"So, a lot of work to be done now in terms of recovery," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at an Oklahoma news conference. "At some point, the cameras will leave ... but on behalf of President Obama and on behalf of FEMA, we will be here to stay until this recovery is complete."

Many of the tasks required big machinery and a stomach for ghastly sights. Mike Roman, a single mother of two with glitter-polished nails and curly blond hair in a bun, spent most of the day hauling away the carcasses of horses from a farm near Moore.

With a forklift, a mini-tractor, a truck and a trailer, Roman's M&M Animal Disposal tackled a 10-foot pile of gnarled horses, donkeys and a pig, bringing them to a dump, where a long line of trucks was forming. Other truck drivers pinched their noses and looked the other way as she zipped by.

Roman said she picked up 28 carcasses during a 2009 tornado that hit nearby Norman, Okla., but this time she has retrieved 52 so far.

"This is the worst I've seen," she said. "You realize there are these animals that don't know where to run."

Many blocks of Moore still resembled a war zone, with areas blocked off by police tape and men in Army uniforms patrolling in ATVs. Two looters were arrested Tuesday night, police said.

Homeowners returning to check on their property and retrieve essentials had to pass through police barricades and show ID. Many roads were closed, causing massive traffic jams and forcing residents to hike in and haul out possessions on foot. On each block, a few families picked through debris as bulldozers and backhoes buzzed.

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