MOORE, Okla. – Amid great destruction, with at least two dozen people dead, including nine children, the citizens here began to assess the severity of their calamity Tuesday after their third major tornado in 14 years, a staggering run of weather misfortune.
Yet there was good news in the aftermath of the historic twister that hit Monday just as school was about to let out: The death toll reported by the state Medical Examiner’s Office ratcheted down from 51 to 24. Officials discovered they may have double-counted fatalities.
That death toll was expected to creep upward again, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said some bodies may have been taken directly to funeral homes. The governor said 237 people had been injured so far as we know.
The city of 55,000, about 11 miles straight south on I-35 from downtown Oklahoma City, is coping with the infrastructure and communication problems common in natural disasters – power outages, gas leaks, lack of water, poor cellphone service. Roughly four square miles were sealed to outsiders as first responders continued to search for victims amid great heaps of debris.
One of the first things workers did Tuesday was put up street signs.
You can’t tell where you’re at. The whole city looks like a debris field, Moore mayor Glenn Lewis said late Tuesday afternoon.
No one possibly could have survived this, said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, describing his thoughts while touring the damaged areas Tuesday. And yet, we know they did. We know people crawled out of that rubble. We’re talking levels of debris 4 feet high as far as the eye can see.
In the heart of the devastation stood the remnants of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where, according to Moore, seven students were killed when a cinder block wall collapsed on them during the tornado.
Sue Ogrocki, an Associated Press photographer who raced to the scene Monday, saw first responders pull 12 children and two adults from beneath collapsed walls, then hand them to parents, teachers and neighbors who formed a makeshift bucket brigade and passed the children away from the rubble to be reunited with their families.
I was amazed at how people maintained their composure. I was amazed that the firemen who were digging with their hands could get those kids out. I mean, they’re professional. And they were in a hurry to get the kids out, but they weren’t panicking, they were doing their job and they were doing it quickly and very well, she said.
One woman experienced what seemed like a miracle right on television: Barbara Garcia was telling a CBS News crew about her dog, a miniature schnauzer, who was ripped from her arms by the massive tornado as she huddled in a bathroom. As she told the story, a reporter noticed the snout of the dog, ragged but seemingly unharmed, poking from beneath the debris.
Oh! Oh! Garcia said. Then: I thought God answered just one prayer, Let me be okayOK.’ He answered both of them.
The city of Moore has faced this situation before. It was hit by an EF5 tornado – the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita scale – on May 3, 1999, with 41 reported deaths. It was struck by another strong tornado on May 8, 2003, but by then many of the residents had built reinforced rooms and shelters, and there were no fatalities.
Lewis, the mayor, began to tear up during his comments at a news conference Tuesday: I was the actual mayor here in May 3, 1999, so this is not my first rodeo with this. But it doesn’t get any easier, especially with the loss of life.
President Obama issued a disaster declaration and dispatched FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate to Oklahoma to help with recovery efforts.
Law enforcement officials have blocked entry into the worst hit neighborhoods. Outside one barricade on Fourth and Wilson streets, Robin Wood camped out with 25 cases of water bought by her church, the Community Church of Lawton. Over the day, a tent city had arisen, stocked with food, clothes, toys and water. Residents kept bringing donations as rescue workers crossed the barricades for something to drink.
People bring more and more, and people keep taking and taking, Wood, 37, said. The stay-at-home mom hasn’t slept in over 32 hours, and other volunteers kept telling her to sit down and rest, but she kept bounding out of the chair to unload new deliveries.