Oklahoma Residents Return Home to Rubble After Tornado

A powerful mile wide tornado that plowed across a populated Oklahoma City suburb yesterday wrecked as many as 2,800 homes, officials said. The state medical examiner reported 24 people died.

The storm, topping the National Weather Service scale for tornadoes, cut a swath through Moore, a town of 55,000, destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School and a hospital, and injuring 237. Winds over 200 miles an hour (322 kilometers an hour) ripped off roofs and twisted sheet metal around splintered trees and utility poles.

President Barack Obama called it “one of the most destructive tornadoes in history.” Governor Mary Fallin, who surveyed the damage by air, said entire blocks were wiped out.

There are no longer any missing people in the disaster area, Mayor Glenn Lewis said on CNN. Twenty-five states offered help, with search and rescue crews heading to the zone from as far away as California. Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Services said the number of homes that were damaged or destroyed was preliminary based on a helicopter fly over of the disaster area earlier today.

The state medical examiner’s office has received 24 bodies. Earlier reports had pegged the toll as high as 91. Eric Pfeifer, the medical examiner, said all but two were identified. More than 300 people were staying at temporary shelter in town, officials said.

The lack of street signs or structures standing in the devastated area made it difficult to locate home sites and buildings, Fallin said today at a news briefing. State lawmakers were at work on legislation to use $45 million of Oklahoma’s rainy-day fund to help pay for recovery, she said. The fund totals $660 million, according to the Associated Press.

Officials at a news briefing said they planned to finish searching by nightfall. Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said he’s “98 percent sure” there were no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble, according to the news service.

‘Nothing Left’

“There ain’t nothing left, nothing,” said Patrick Duffy, 62, a computer programmer, as he and his wife, Kathern, sifted through a four-foot (1.2-meter) pile of soggy insulation, mud, leaves, a single shoe, a torn book and a broken table lamp --all that was left of their three-bedroom, ranch-style home. “This will all have to be scraped away.”

The tornado was an EF5, the most powerful type on the Enhanced Fujita scale for measuring twisters, according to the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. The storm cut a 17-mile-long path that was 1.3 miles across at its widest point.

Joplin Anniversary

The twister hit two days before the second anniversary of the deadliest single U.S. tornado in almost 60 years, which slammed into Joplin, Missouri, about 225 miles northeast of Moore. That storm killed 161 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage, according to the state insurance department.

In May 1999, 40 people died and 675 were injured in Oklahoma after dozens of tornadoes swept through the Great Plains in the largest such outbreak recorded in the state, according to the National Weather Service.

“Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs, right away,” Obama said today at a White House news briefing. “Americans from every corner of this country will be right there with them.”

The twister was one of 14 reported from Colorado to Kansas yesterday. The National Weather Service issued its first warning at 2:40 p.m. local time, 16 minutes before the tornado touched down about 10 miles west of the city. Moore residents had about 36 minutes to prepare for the tornado, 23 minutes longer than the average lead time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Christina Morris, 45, said she, her husband, her sister and 4-year-old niece crowded into a tiny bedroom closet as the tornado bore down on their one-story house, causing it to shake and sway. It sounded like 40 freight trains, she said.

‘We Prayed’

“We’re not churchgoers, but we prayed,” she said in an interview today on her front porch. “We prayed to my mother to watch over us. She passed away a few years ago.”

The twister’s center passed just north of their house, blowing out their back windows and covering the kitchen wall with mud. A car bumper was deposited about 20 feet up in a front-yard tree. Two short blocks away, the medical center took a direct hit, its windows blown out and parts of the building facade toppled.

“We’re lucky,” Morris said. “A lot of other people around here weren’t.”

Mark Ellerd, 49, saw the tornado approaching the movie theater across from his home of 23 years and took shelter in his master bedroom closet. He emerged to find his roof and walls torn away. He pulled a tent and other camping gear from the wreckage of a shed and spent the night in his front yard. He said he’s seen four tornadoes in the vicinity, including the 1999 twister that passed within a few miles.

“I’m glad I was here, I experienced it,” he said. “I’m glad I lived.”

Durant Donation

Residents mourned those who didn’t survive, and communities began mobilizing to help one another. Donations began pouring in, including a $1 million gift to the American Red Cross from Kevin Durant of the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder. The team also donated the same amount to relief efforts. Churches opened their doors, and the University of Oklahoma said it would provide housing for displaced families.

The state set up a website to help those affected find services, said Fallin, a 58-year-old Republican. State employees who lost their homes would be given 15 days of leave, she said, adding that she wasn’t aware of any who lost their lives or loved ones.

“This was the storm of storms,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said at the news briefing.

Obama last night declared a major disaster in Oklahoma, making government funding available to people affected by the storm in five counties. Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arrived today.

Twister Prone

Oklahoma City has been struck by tornadoes more times than any other place in the U.S., according to government data. Yesterday’s storm came the day after two people were killed and 39 injured in separate storms in the state. At least 30 tornadoes were reported on May 19 from Illinois to Oklahoma.

The twister was on the ground for 40 minutes, said Ryan Barnes, a weather service meteorologist in Norman. A second school, Briarwood Elementary, a mile and a half from Plaza Towers, was also heavily damaged.

The cost may top $2 billion, Charles Watson, research and development director at Kinetic Analysis Corp., a hazard-research company in Silver Spring, Maryland, told CNBC. The 1999 outbreak in the state caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damage, according to the National Weather Service.

Insurance Shares

Insurance company shares dropped on the news. Travelers Cos., the lone property insurer in the 30-company Dow Jones Industrial Average, sank 2.2 percent to $83.63 at 4:15 p.m. in New York. Allstate Corp., the largest publicly traded U.S. auto and home insurer, fell 1.5 percent.

Moore was also hit hard by a tornado in 1999, with the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface. The suburb is a middle-class community with an average household income of $64,297 in 2010, well above the national average of $50,221, according to city budget documents and U.S. Census data.

Susan Pierce, superintendent of the Moore Public School district, the third largest in the state, said the twister wouldn’t ruin graduations for the city’s three high schools. They’ll take place as planned in downtown Oklahoma City this weekend, she said.

Fallin said officials are planning a memorial service, though a date hasn’t been set.