Oklahoma rescuers wind down search for survivors

Mile-wide tornado plowed across an Oklahoma City suburb, killing 24 people

Wed, May 22, 2013, 09:50

Rescue efforts in the tornado-ravaged Oklahoma City suburb of Moore continued through the night with officials increasingly confident that everyone caught in the disaster has been accounted for.

The massive tornado that tore through the area on Monday wiped out blocks of houses, killed 24 people and injured about 240.

Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said search-and-rescue dog teams would search today for anybody trapped under the rubble, but that attention would also be focused on a huge clean-up job.

“They will continue the searches of areas to be sure nothing is overlooked,“ he said, adding: “There‘s going to be more of a transition to recovery.“

After a long day of searching through shattered homes that was slowed by rainy weather, Oklahoma County commissioner Brian Maughan said it seemed no one was missing.

“As far as I know, of the list of people that we have had that they are all accounted for in one way or another,“ he said.

As he spoke, dog teams and members of the National Guard were changing shifts to work through the night.

The death toll of 24 was lower than initially feared, but nine children were among the dead, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School which took a direct hit by the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris of homes, schools and a hospital after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour (320 kph), leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles (23 km) long and 1.3 miles (2 km) wide.

Plaza Towers Elementary was one of five schools in its path. “They (rescuers) literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out,“ Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said. “They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them.“

The US National Weather Service upgraded its calculation of the storm‘s strength yesterday, saying it was a rare EF5, the most powerful ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

The last time a giant twister tore through the area, on May 3rd, 1999, it killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also ranked as an EF5.

While Oklahoma Emergency Management‘s Lojka said a flyover of the affected area yesterday showed 2,400 homes damaged or obliterated, with an estimated 10,000 people affected, the death toll was lower than might have been expected.

The toll was also much lower than that of the 2011 twister in Joplin, Missouri, which killed 161 people.

In the hours following the storm, many more people were feared dead. At one point, the Oklahoma state medical examiner‘s office said the toll could rise as high as 91, but yesterday officials said 24 bodies had been recovered, down from a previous tally of 51.

“There was a lot of chaos,“ said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.

Some ascribe the relatively low number of dead residents discovered in Moore, home to 55,000 people, to the fact many locals have small “storm safe“ shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.

Billy McElrath (50) of Oklahoma City, said his wife hid in a storm safe in their garage when the tornado hit.

She emerged unhurt even though the storm destroyed the 1968 Corvette convertible she had bought him as a birthday present, and crushed a motorcycle. “Everything else is just trashed,“ he said as he loaded a pickup with salvaged goods.

Kraig Boozier (47) took to his own small shelter in the Westmoor subdivision of Oklahoma City and watched in shock as a fan in the wall was ripped out.

“I looked up and saw the tornado above me,“ he said.

When he came out after the storm, he helped a neighbor who had emerged from her own shelter move a car that was blocking the entrance to another neighbor‘s shelter.

Officials said another factor behind the surprisingly low death toll was the early warning, with meteorologists saying days in advance that a storm system was forming.

Once a tornado was forming, people had 15 to 20 minutes of warning, which meant they could take shelter or flee the projected path. The weather service also has new, sterner warnings about deadly tornadoes to get people‘s attention.

Many of those who do not have a basic storm shelter at home, which can cost $2,500 to $5,000, have learned from warnings over the year to seek hiding places at home during a tornado.

Jackie Raper (73) and her daughter, for instance, sought shelter in the bathtub in her house in Oklahoma City to survive the tornado.

“The house fell on top of her,“ said Caylin Burgett (16) who says Raper is like a grandmother to her. Raper broke her arm and femur, and bruised her lungs, Burgett said.