Under stormy skies, residents of Moore, Okla., salvage items from the remains… (Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty…)
MOORE, Okla. — Rain drenched the tornado-devastated towns near Oklahoma City again Thursday as weary survivors began to bury their dead and find the strength to carry on.
Authorities said they didn't expect the death toll to rise beyond 24 – 10 of whom were children. More than 375 people were injured.
The first funeral was for Antonia Lee Candelaria, 9, one of seven children killed when Monday's tornado leveled Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.
In her obituary, "Tonie" was described as "a beautiful young lady on the inside and out" who could "find the positive, good and joy in everything." She and her best friend, Emily Conatzer, also 9, "were inseparable, even in their last moments," the obituary said. "They held on to one another and followed each other into heaven and they will never be alone."
Another tornado victim, Megan Futrell, died trying to protect her 4-month-old son. Futrell, 29, a teacher at Highland West Junior High School in Moore, left to get him from day care when she heard about the approaching tornado. With the infant, Case, she took shelter at a 7-Eleven, but it offered no protection. She was found clutching the baby, both of them dead from blunt-force trauma to the head.
"I want people to remember this woman for the love she had for her child," said Pastor D.A. Bennett, Futrell's childhood pastor, who will preside over their funerals Tuesday at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. "I think that this was a mother who wanted to do everything possible to protect her child.... It was hard to protect anyone on that day."
Also Thursday, a mother described what led up to a photograph that ran on front pages across the country, including The Times. LaTisha Garcia raced the tornado to Plaza Towers, where her daughter Jazmin Rodriguez was a third-grader. The tornado got there first. The photo shows Garcia carrying Jazmin across a devastated landscape.
Other than bumps and bruises, Jazmin, 8, is fine, Garcia told the Associated Press. "She remembers everything hitting her back, the noise, kids screaming and crying. ... I know she definitely had God's arms around her to walk out of there."
A memorial service for all the victims was set for Sunday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said at a news conference. President Obama will be in the disaster area and is likely to attend.
Moore and other towns along the twister's 17-mile path have a daunting cleanup task ahead. Property damage is estimated at $2 billion, utilities are still down in many areas, and some businesses have been destroyed, and with them, jobs. Roads are heavily congested and police checkpoints intended to prevent looting are slowing cleanup, especially for those who lost IDs in the storm.
The wet weather, too, slowed recovery. Pelting rain combined with strong winds to knock over some relief tents, drenching supplies. A lightning strike caused an outdoor siren to malfunction and sound at 8:41 a.m. in Blanchard, about 30 miles south of Oklahoma City.
Support for survivors continued to pour in from around the country. At the First Baptist Church of Moore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a relief center. Volunteers piled rows of donated shoes, children's books, food tins and water bottles.
"It came in droves," said Joey Dean, a student pastor.
About 2,200 Oklahomans have registered for aid with FEMA, the governor said.
They include the two sons of Jerry Cavenee, 62. Their shared home near the Warren movie theater was destroyed. The elder Cavenee tried to bring a trailer to his sons' destroyed home Wednesday. But with the intense post-storm traffic, it took six hours to go 20 miles, and then officials wouldn't let him bring the trailer past a police checkpoint.
"The biggest problem is the rubber-neckers," Cavenee said. "We're trying to get in there, and there are long lines to get in."
Oklahoma shifted $45 million from its rainy-day fund to use for storm recovery. Several state legislators established a nonprofit fund, fueled by corporate donations, to help schools construct storm shelters.
The question of storm shelters, particularly in schools, has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the tornado. There were no safe rooms at Plaza Towers or Briarwood elementary schools, both devastated.
But officials were focused on cleanup, not second-guessing.
"Our main task now is to work on recovery for the various communities," the governor said.
For many tornado victims, the next step is figuring out where they're going to live and work. Insurance adjusters are roaming neighborhoods, examining homes and cutting checks from portable printers to help people find somewhere to live, but they can't reach everybody at once. Already, residents have filed 6,700 claims for homes, cars and businesses.
The state is allowing out-of-state insurance brokers 90-day emergency permits to help with the disaster.
"My plane was full of adjusters; my hotel was full of adjusters," said Robert P. Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute.
For the moment, Olga Cordero, 35, her husband and daughters are crammed into her sister's house. Her daughters are sleeping on the floor. The Corderos' home, next to Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, was destroyed.
But she's not complaining.
"The support from my family, my community, it's awesome," Cordero said. On Thursday, she got a free pair of glasses to replace the ones she lost in the storm. She also recovered important papers and photographs of her children from the ruins of her home.
What does she need now?
"A place to live!" she and her husband, Edmundo Jaimes, said in unison.
Times staff writers Michael Muskal, Stephen Ceasar and Alana Semuels in Los Angeles contributed to this report.