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Searches and Cleanup Continue in Oklahoma

LONE GROVE, Okla. -- Standing in a field of debris where mobile homes once stood, Sue Rose wondered how a half-mile wide tornado could ravage nearly everything in sight and take so many lives but spare hers.

"I don't know how I made it," said Rose, who rode out Tuesday's storm in a trailer at the Bar K Mobile Home Park with family members.

"I tried to keep the kids calm. We just prayed," she said, fighting back tears Wednesday.

Rose's home was heavily damaged and dozens more were destroyed after a tornado with winds estimated at 170 mph ripped through Lone Grove just after dark Tuesday night.

Search and rescue crews were expected on Thursday to resume the task of sifting through scattered bricks and beams to find any remaining victims.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported eight deaths early Wednesday and Carter County Sheriff Ken Grace said a man who was injured in the storm and transferred to a Dallas hospital died later in the day.

"The majority of the deaths appeared to be blunt force trauma to the head," said Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office.

President Barack Obama spoke to Gov. Brad Henry and Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and "passed along his condolences and best wishes to the victims," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also offered Henry "any and all support" to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the storm, as well as support to those who lost their homes.

Most of the deaths occurred in the mobile home park, where no tornado shelter was available for residents to take refuge. In one case, a victim was found underneath a pickup truck the tornado had lifted and dropped on him.

There also were miraculous tales of survival. People who were huddling in a closet grabbed a woman after the tornado blew part of the roof off and threatened to carry her away. Rescuers found another woman injured but alive under an overturned mobile home.

Firefighters methodically searched each damaged or destroyed structure in Lone Grove on Wednesday, spray-painting a large X on homes after inspection and allowing residents to go in and check for belongings.

Ginger Byrne got to look for cherished possessions in a pile of rubble that used to be her mobile home. The tornado picked it up and dropped it about 100 feet north of where it had stood.

"I found my Bible, my mother's ring," Byrne said. "It's just stuff. I have memories in my heart."

It may take months, even years, before the community of about 4,600 fully recovers, but Henry said state residents have "become very good at responding to disaster."

"Oklahomans have gone through this kind of disaster before," he said. "We know what we are doing. We will rebuild."

Sheriff's Deputy David Gilley said between 100 and 150 homes were destroyed in the town, located about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City.

Residents apparently had good warning of the approaching twister. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning, meaning a tornado is imminent and residents should take shelter, at 6:50 p.m. for Carter County. Another was issued at 7:15 p.m. when the actual tornado was spotted. The tornado hit Lone Grove at 7:25 p.m.

The Lone Grove tornado was the third to cause multiple fatalities in the state since March 2007, when a Panhandle couple became the state's first tornado deaths in almost six years.

The storm took many by surprise because even in tornado-prone Oklahoma, February twisters are rare. According to the weather service, 44 have touched down in the state during the month of February since 1950.

Two other tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City metro area and in north-central Oklahoma late Tuesday. No serious injuries were reported in the Oklahoma City storm, but at least six homes were destroyed and businesses were damaged there, officials said.

Oklahoma's severe weather season generally begins in March and runs through mid-June, a fact not lost on Henry, who wondered whether this was a fluke or a sign of things to come in the spring.

"It's a big concern. I kind of thought we were still in winter."


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