NEWS

2 infants confirmed among dead of Oklahoma tornado

05/22/2013 03:52 EDT | Updated 07/22/2013 05:12 EDT
Two infants — a four-month-old and a seven-month-old — have been confirmed among the victims of the giant tornado that flattened the town of Moore, Okla., killing 24 people.

The Oklahoma medical examiner's office said Wednesday that it has positively identified all of the people killed in the twister. That death toll includes a total of 10 children.

The tornado destroyed countless homes and reduced one elementary school almost entirely to rubble.

U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to the ravaged town this weekend to see the devastation first-hand and to talk to families affected by the storm.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president would visit Sunday and would also meet with first responders.

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As state and federal officials work to set up disaster recovery centres to provide aid and assistance, residents of Moore were beginning the deliberate process of assessing what's left of their homes and possessions and what comes next.

At a news conference Wednesday, Moore Mayor Glen Lewis said residents would be allowed back into their neighbourhoods in the afternoon. The Red Cross, which has been providing food and shelter to the people of Moore, will be giving out tarps, pails, mops and gloves "so people can sift through their belongings and pull their lives back together again," said the organization's CEO, Gail J. McGovern.

Helmeted rescue workers have been searching tirelessly for survivors and victims, and officials said Tuesday they planned to keep going — sometimes double- and triple-checking home sites. Emergency crews had trouble navigating devastated neighbourhoods because there were no street signs left. Some rescuers used smartphones or GPS devices to guide them through areas with no recognizable landmarks.

Moore fire Chief Gary Bird said Wednesday that between 12,000 and 13,000 homes have been affected. He estimates that the storm caused approximately $1.5 billion to $2 billion worth of damage. Officials were not certain of how many individuals had been displaced.

Bird had said Tuesday he was confident there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble, but officials said today there are still at least six individuals who remain unaccounted for. They are encouraging everyone affected by the tornado to contact FEMA.

U.S. Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, who spoke at today's news conference, said that recovery efforts will focus on debris removal to open up roads and streets, before helping individual homeowners. She said that the government would help with long-term recovery work.

"At some point the cameras will leave," Napolitano said, "but on behalf of President Obama, on behalf of FEMA, we will be here to stay."

Survivor stories

Monday's tornado, which travelled 27 kilometres and was two kilometres wide at points, loosely followed the path of a twister that brought 482 km/h winds in May 1999. This week's tornado was the fourth since 1998 to hit Moore, a middle-class community that has been one of the fastest-growing suburbs of Oklahoma City.

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Survivors emerged with harrowing accounts of the storm's wrath, which many endured as they shielded loved ones in hallways, closets and bathrooms.

Larry Harjo, his twin brother and their wives headed for the hospital at the end of the street only minutes ahead of the tornado that ripped the roof off their home and blew out its walls.

"We could see the tornado coming. We could see one side of it, but we couldn't see the other so we knew it was big," Harjo, 45, said while standing in his driveway. "There was no surviving that. It was either underground or out of the way kind of thing and we got the hell out of Dodge."

The hospital was their plan. They had sheltered there before, but this time, it took a direct hit.

"We were directly centre of the hospital and we could hear the cars hitting the building, so we knew it wasn't going to be nice," he said. "Thump, thump, thump. Loud thumps."

"Ceiling tiles falling everywhere. I thought it was going to cave on us there for a minute," he said.

'We will rebuild'

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin lamented the loss of life, especially of the nine children killed, but she celebrated the town's resilience.

"We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength," Fallin said Tuesday.

Napolitano noted that the local high school's graduation would go on as planned this weekend.

Fallin said that they are making progress clearing off public areas. She asked the public to be patient and to avoid visiting the affected areas and to keep highways clear for cleanup equipment and personnel.

"This is going to be a very long recovery process," she said Wednesday.

From the air, large stretches Moore could be seen where every home had been cut to pieces. Some homes were sucked off their concrete slabs. A pond was filled with piles of wood and an overturned trailer. Also visible were large patches of red earth where the tornado scoured the land down to the soil. Some tree trunks were still standing, but the winds ripped away their leaves.

Officials had revised the death toll downward from 51 to 24 on Tuesday after the state medical examiner said some victims may have been double-counted in the confusion immediately after the storm. More than 200 people were treated at area hospitals.

The National Weather Service said the tornado, which was on the ground for 40 minutes, was a top-of-the-scale EF-5 twister with winds of at least 321 km/h — the first EF-5 tornado of 2013.

Search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighbourhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage centre in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.

Plaza Towers and another school in Oklahoma City that was not as severely damaged did not have reinforced storm shelters, or safe rooms, said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

More than 100 schools across the state do have safe rooms, he said. He added that a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at Plaza Towers.

Obama pledged to provide federal help and mourned the death of young children who were killed while "trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school."

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