MOORE, Okla. -- A band of thunderstorms put this city further on edge Thursday as the grim task of burying the dead from this week’s deadly tornado began.
Pelting rain combined with strong winds to knock over some relief tents, drenching supplies such as food and clothing. The storms hindered what has become a recovery operation in the wake of the tornado that killed at least 24 people on Monday.
The size of the cleanup remained large with state officials estimating that the total bill for damage could top $2 billion. Local officials estimate that as many as 13,000 homes were damaged and many were destroyed by the storm that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb of about 55,000.
PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma
Nerves remained on edge Thursday morning. A lightning strike caused an outdoor siren to malfunction and sound at 8:41 a.m. in Blanchard. The siren sparked fears of a return of dangerous weather and prompted the National Weather Service in Norman to issue a statement assuring residents that there was no tornado present.
At worst, the area around Moore appeared headed for another drenching with a possibility of flash flooding.
Parts of Texas were braced for a possible tornado outbreak -- not uncommon this time of year. The weather service said on its website that there was a moderate risk of severe storms to develop in northwest Texas, "which could result in very large hail and a few tornadoes.”
MAP: Path of destruction
On Wednesday, several hundred volunteers helped clean the Moore cemetery, which was covered in debris, making the site ready for Memorial Day ceremonies. The spontaneous outpouring was a reminder of the painful task that lies ahead -- burying the victims of the tornado strike.
The first funeral, for 9-year-old Antonia Candelaria, was scheduled for Thursday. She was among seven students who died when the storm smashed Plaza Towers Elementary School, where rubble marks where the one-story building once stood.
The state medical examiner reported that six of the children who died at Plaza Towers suffocated after being buried under the collapsed building. A seventh child was killed instantly when an object broke his neck.
In all, 10 children were killed in the storm, which was measured as a level EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. It carried winds of more than 200 miles an hour and it raced along a 17-mile path that was 1.3 miles wide.
The tornado hit Plaza Towers school just after 3 p.m. when students were still in the building and there was little time to move them. School officials made the difficult decision to keep the children on campus. Neither Plaza Towers, nor Briarwood Elementary School, which was also hit by the storm, had safe rooms.
Moore students, like many in Tornado Alley where devastating storms are an annual occurrence, practice what to do when tornadoes hit. At a news conference this week school Superintendent Susan Pierce said the district carried out its plans.
“When our children are at our schools, they are in our care,” Pierce said. “When it was time to shelter, we did just that.”
On Saturday the town is scheduled to hold its high school graduation, Pierce said. President Obama, who has pledged federal help in rebuilding the city, will visit on Sunday.
The most recent tornado, at least the fourth since 1998 to strike the city, has reignited a debate over whether storm cellars and safe rooms should be required in new construction. Mayor Glenn Lewis said Wednesday he would propose an ordinance in the next couple of days to require all new homes to have storm shelters.
After the May 3, 1999, tornado, federal grants covered some of the costs for storm shelters.
Meanwhile, federal law officials warned Oklahoma residents to be on the look out for con artists that follow in the wake of major tragedies.
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Pearce reported from Moore and Muskal from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.