by Joe Shea
May 20, 2013
DEVASTATION IN MOORE, OKLA., DEFIES DESCRIPTION
MOORE, Okla., May 20, 2013 9pm ET (Updated 7:03pm ET, May 21, 2013) -- A devastating tornado said to be two and a quarter miles wide struck the city of Moore, Okla., just south of Oklahoma City, and destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 24 people, including nine children, mostly third-graders, seven of whom drowned in an elementaery school where they huddled for safety.
Early reports said 51 were killed, but that turned out to be due to a "double count" on the ground and at funeral homes, the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner's Office said. The toll may go higher as rescuers search the rubble of thousands of homes and trailers destroyed in a 17-mile-long swath of destruction that was 1.3 miles wide.
President Obama has declared a Federal emergency in Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie counties, the hardest hit yesterday and Sunday, as major disaster areas and has pledged to stand by the side of Moore residents until their homes, schools and stores are rebuilt. The President's action make money available for temporary housing, and "home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster," the White House said.
The President assured the people of Moore and all the affected areas that they "would have all the resources that they need at their disposal," a White House press release said, quoting the President.
"For there are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention," President Obama said. "There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, and bedrooms, and classrooms, and, in time, we're going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community," he said.
"Americans from every corner of this country will be right there with them, opening our homes, our hearts to those in need," the President said.
As many as 24 more children were feared to be still trapped in the ruins of the school, but so so far, rescuers from a host of agencies have found no survivors. An 8-year-old Asian boy and a schoolteacher escaped the initial destruction. Search and rescue teams were still working with furious energy to find any buried children still alive. Children in the fourth through sixth graders were taken before the storm to a nearby church and have survived.
It was the fourth strong tornado to strike Moore since 1998; a May 3, 1999, tornado in Moore destroyed 1,000 homes and killed 36 people, according to US Rep. Tom Cole, a Congressman who represents the area and still lives in Moore. His wife escaped, he said, by going to the home of a friend who had a basement, where she was still hiding when Cole spoke to CNN. KFOR-TV and KOCO-TV both relayed live images of the storm and its aftermath. The coverage was carried live on CNN and the Weather Channel.
The tornado, upgraded Monday by the National Weather Service to an F5 packing winds of 200 to 210 mph, was accompanied by rain, high winds and hail described as "the size of baseballs." Some tornado watchers called it the biggest in recorded history. The storm path was 1.3 miles wide and 17 nmiles long, NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams reported Monday evening in a special hour-long broadcast. NBC said 247 people were injured.
Long after the storm, one home was still being consumed by a raging fire said to be caused by natural gas, but the emergency forced firefighters to ignore. Governor Mary Fallin declared a Level 1 disaster, allowing emergency response teams to be freely deployed, and spoke to President Obama by telephone, who immediately promised the nation's help.
Millions watched live images of the vast tornado scour Moore for some 40 minutes, and it was televised from 2:56pm to 3:26pm Central Time, The devastation was so dramatic that one reporter, Lance West, 35, of KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, as he told of 30 children being pulled alive from Plaza Towers Elementary School, slowly was overcome by the scene and finally, unable to speak, openly wept. There was probably no parallel to today's events since the World Trade Center collapse in 2001.
Two men, Glen Irish, 79, and Bill Hutchinson, 76, were killed in a tornado that struck Shawnee, Okla., and the towns of Luther and Carney on Sunday.
Some students at Plaza Towers Elementary told of teachers herding them into a bathroom stall and covering them with her own bodyy. A litle gril cried as she said there was still blood in her hair from another little guirl who was injured. The older school had no safe room or storm shelter, as did nearby Briarwood Elementary, also hit but where no children were hurt.
While relief swept across the nation as the tornado slowly shrunk into a long, curling snake and then broke into two pieces, residents of nearby Meeker and Ardmore awaited the same tornado's path. It is believed to be hitting Branson, Mo., at 9:35pm ET.
Many of the injured were taken 10 miles south to Norman, Okla., where the University of Oklahoma opened its vaunted Medical Center to the victims and its university housing to people who had lost their homes. Initial reports said 12 people were hospitalized at the OU Medical Center.
Much of the death and injury inflicted upon the people of Moore stemmed from the fact that the soil there is on top of clay and sand subject to water permeation. That has kept many from building undergorund storm shelters and basements where they might have survived the storm. News reports said that people without underground shelters stood "zero chance of survival."
In one image seared into viewers' minds, a barechested young man named Lydon Hite, his face covered with dirt, told of working as a horse handler at a 100-year-old Orr family farm, where at least 75 horses were boarded. Hite said he heard noise and wind earlier and then noticed that everything went silent. "Being from Oklahoma," he said, he went outside to investigate and saw the tornado, and then ran back into the barn to free as many horses as possible.
Hite then took shelter in a horse stall where he slept, and after the tornado displayed the small heap of personal belongings in the stall that once was his home.
Only two of the horses survived, but there were no carcasses to be seen; some may have been flung for miles by the twister.
It is still unclear whether any children will still be pulled alive from the elementary school debris. Frantic parents are at the scene, praying, weeping and calling out to their children, or gazing at the ruins with blank and empty stares. Dogs alerted to one possible survivor shortly after 9pm Central Time.