MOORE, Oklahoma (AP) — 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.
JEMS Oklahoma Tornado Coverage
As state and federal officials work to set up disaster recovery centers 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.
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. 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 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 17 miles (27 kilometers) and was 1.3 miles (2 kilometers) wide at points, loosely followed the path of a twister that brought 300 mph (482 kph) 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," he said.
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 EF5 twister with winds of at least 200 mph (321 kph) — the first EF5 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 neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center 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.
President Barack 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."
Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti, Christopher Sherman, Nomaan Merchant, Sean Murphy and Tim Talley contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.