Oklahoma residents come home to pick up the pieces

‘THUMP, THUMP, THUMP’::Authorities were confident all survivors and bodies were found, with the death toll revised down to 24 from 51. Survivors told harrowing tales

AP, MOORE, Oklahoma

Thu, May 23, 2013 - Page 1

Residents began returning home to their flattened Oklahoma town after a giant tornado killed at least 24 people, destroyed countless homes and reduced one elementary school almost entirely to rubble, killing seven children inside.

Authorities said they were confident that all survivors and bodies had been found. As state and federal officials work to set up disaster recovery centers to provide aid and assistance, residents of Moore were beginning the process of assessing what is left of their homes and possessions, and what comes next.

Helmeted rescue workers have been searching tirelessly for survivors and victims, and officials said on Tuesday they planned to keep going — sometimes double- and triple-checking home sites.

Officials were not certain of how many homes were destroyed or how many families had been displaced. Emergency crews had trouble navigating devastated neighborhoods 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 on Tuesday he was confident there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble. Every damaged home had been searched at least once, Bird said, but his goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors.

“I’m 98 percent sure we’re good,” Bird said.

Monday’s tornado, which traveled 27km and was 2km wide at points, loosely followed the path of a twister that brought 482kph 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.

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 center 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.”

From the air, large stretches of 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.