Vast Oklahoma Tornado Kills, Injures Scores; Flattens Homes

Update: On May 22, CNN published an update titled Search for Survivors Winds Down as Oklahoma Begins Daunting Recovery.

Search for survivors winds down as Oklahoma begins daunting recovery

Affected Moore, OK ZIP codes: 73153, 73160, 73165, and 73170
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Moore, Oklahoma (CNN) -- What began as a desperate hunt for survivors in this debris-covered city is giving way to an arduous road to recovery.

No survivors or bodies have been found in Moore since Monday, the day a mammoth tornado ripped through 17 miles of central Oklahoma and pummeled 2,400 homes.

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The mayor of Moore, which bore the brunt of the tornado's wrath, said he doesn't expect the death toll to climb any higher. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed, the state medical examiner's office said.

"I think that will stand," Mayor Glenn Lewis said.

Earlier reports of at least 51 deaths were erroneous, said Amy Elliot of the state medical examiner's office. She said some of the dead were apparently counted twice during the chaotic aftermath of the twister.

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But some loved ones are still missing.

Cassandra Jenkins has no idea what happened to her grandparents, more than a day after the twister struck their hometown of Moore.

"All we know is that their home is still left standing. However, they have not been seen or heard from since the storm hit," she said as her daughters clutched photos of their great-grandparents.

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"We've tried to locate them at every hospital, every shelter, every Red Cross. Anything we could possibly reach out to, we have."

While the mayor of Moore said he doesn't think the death toll will rise, each passing hour brings more sobering news about the catastrophe.

About 2,400 homes were damaged or destroyed in Moore and Oklahoma City, a spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management said late Tuesday night. The twister directly affected roughly 10,000 residents, Jerry Lojka said.

The financial impact will also be monumental. Insurance claims will probably top $1 billion, said Kelly Collins of the Oklahoma Insurance Commission.

Young lives remembered

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in Moore is the pile of wreckage where Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood.

Seven of the nine children killed in the storm were inside the school when it collapsed.

The children were in a classroom, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird told CNN Wednesday. He also said they did not die from drowning. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb told CNN the youngsters had drowned in a school basement.

Ja'Nae Hornsby, 9, was one of them.

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"There's no other kid like her," Ja'Nae's aunt Angela Hornsby said. "She's the sweetest thing, the bossiest thing, the most fun, always trying to make us laugh."

Ja'Nae's father, Joshua Hornsby, isn't ready to accept that his little girl is gone.

"I'm still hoping for that call to say, 'We've made a mistake,' " he said. "I just pray that's what it is."

Destruction on a colossal scale

Damage assessments Tuesday showed the tornado packed winds over 200 mph at times, making it an EF5 -- the strongest category of tornadoes measured, the National Weather Service said.

Lewis said the devastation was so catastrophic that city officials rushed to print new street signs to help guide rescuers and residents through the newly mangled and unfamiliar landscape.

Severe weather moves east

The rescue workers in Moore included police and firefighters from Joplin, Missouri -- a city all too familiar with grief and devastation.

Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the tornado that pulverized Joplin, killing at least 158 people. It was the deadliest single U.S. tornado since federal record-keeping began in 1950.

"We remember the amount of assistance that we received following the tornado two years ago, and we want to help others as they helped us," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said.

"We know too well what their community is facing, and we feel an obligation to serve them as they have served us."

'Still can't believe this'

Some residents of Moore ventured back to where their homes once stood, only to find unrecognizable scraps of their lives.

"You just want to break down and cry," Steve Wilkerson said, his voice trembling.

He held a laundry basket that contained the few intact belongings he could find.

"I still can't believe this is happening. You work 20 years, and then it's gone in 15 minutes."

Teachers lauded for saving students

Amid the trauma and grief, tales of heroism and gratitude sprouted up across Moore.

Several teachers at Briarwood Elementary shielded their students with their bodies or distracted them with impromptu games as they took cover from the tornado that demolished their school.

Suzanne Haley was impaled by the leg of a desk while protecting her students.

"We crowded the children under desks, and me and a fellow teacher put ourselves in front of the desks that the children were under," she told CNN's Piers Morgan.

The roof and walls collapsed around them as the tornado's fury enveloped the school. The leg of the desk pierced her right calf, jutting out on both sides.

"By the grace of God, I kept it together," she said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. I had to be calm for them."

Miraculously, everyone at Briarwood survived.

While many describe the teachers as heroes, Haley dismisses the title.

"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do," she said. "These children -- we see their smiles, their tears, every day, in and out, and we love them."

To view the online article, please click here.


On May 20, The New York Times published an article titled Vast Oklahoma Tornado Kills at Least 91.

Vast Oklahoma Tornado Kills at Least 91

Affected Moore, OK ZIP codes: 73153, 73160, 73165, and 73170

Please click here for related video coverage.

MOORE, Okla. -- A giant tornado, a mile wide or more, killed at least 91 people, 20 of them children, as it tore across parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs Monday afternoon, flattening homes, flinging cars through the air and crushing at least two schools.

The injured flooded into hospitals, and the authorities said many people remained trapped, even as rescue workers struggled to make their way through debris-clogged streets to the devastated suburb of Moore, where much of the damage occurred.

Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said at least 91 people had died, including the children, and officials said that toll was likely to climb. Hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.

Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore was reduced to a pile of twisted metal and toppled walls. Rescue workers were able to pull several children from the rubble, but on Monday evening crews were still struggling to cut through fallen beams and clear debris amid reports that dozens of students were trapped. At Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, on the border with Moore, cars were thrown through the facade and the roof was torn off.

“Numerous neighborhoods were completely leveled,” Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department said by telephone. “Neighborhoods just wiped clean.”

He said debris and damage to roadways, along with heavy traffic, were hindering emergency responders as they raced to the affected areas.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in Moore said emergency workers were struggling to assess the damage.

“Please send us your prayers,” she said.

Brooke Cayot, a spokeswoman for Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said 58 patients had come in by about 9 p.m. An additional 85 were being treated at Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

“They’ve been coming in minute by minute,” Ms. Cayot said.

The tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m., 16 minutes after the first warning went out, and traveled for 20 miles, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. It was on the ground for 40 minutes, she said. It struck the town of Newcastle and traveled about 10 miles to Moore, a populous suburb of Oklahoma City.

Ms. Pirtle said preliminary data suggested that it was a Category 4 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5. A definitive assessment will not be available until Tuesday, she said.

Moore was the scene of another huge tornado, in May 1999, in which winds reached record speeds of 302 m.p.h., and experts said severe weather was common in the region this time of year.

But the region has rarely had a tornado as big and as powerful as the one on Monday.

Television on Monday showed destruction spread over a vast area, with blocks upon blocks of homes and businesses destroyed. Residents, some partly clothed and apparently caught by surprise, were shown picking through rubble. Several structures were on fire, and cars had been tossed around, flipped over and stacked on top of each other. Kelcy Trowbridge, her husband and their three young children piled into their neighbor’s cellar just outside of Moore and huddled together for about five minutes, wrapped under a blanket as the tornado screamed above them, debris smashing against the cellar door.

They emerged to find their home flattened and the family car resting upside down a few houses away. Ms. Trowbridge’s husband rushed toward what was left of their home and began sifting through the debris, then stopped, and told her to call the police.

He had found the body of a little girl, about 2 or 3 years old, she said.

“He knew she was already gone,” Ms. Trowbridge said. “When the police got there, he just bawled.”

She said: “My neighborhood is gone. It’s flattened. Demolished. The street is gone. The next block over, it’s in pieces.”

Sarah Johnson was forced to rush from her home in Moore to the hospital as the storm raged when her 4-year-old daughter, Shellbie, suffered an asthma attack. With hail raining down, she put a hard hat on her daughter as she raced into the emergency room and hunkered down.

“We knew it was coming -- all the nurses were down on the ground so we got down on the ground,” Ms. Johnson said from the Journey Church in nearby Norman, where she had sought shelter.

At the hospital, she said, she shoved her daughter next to a wall and threw a mattress on top of her. After the storm passed, debris and medical equipment were scattered around, she said.

Ms. Johnson said she and her daughter were safe, but she had yet to find her husband.

The storm system continued to churn through the region on Monday afternoon, and forecasters warned that new tornadoes could form.

An earlier storm system spawned several tornadoes across Oklahoma on Sunday. Several deaths were reported.

Russell Schneider, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, said the risk of tornadoes throughout the region remained high going into Tuesday.

Some parts of Moore emerged seemingly untouched by the tornado. Bea Carruth, who lives about 20 blocks from where the storm struck, said her home and others in her neighborhood appeared to be fine.

Ms. Carruth had ridden out the tornado as she usually does, at her son’s house nearby, the hail pounding away on the cellar where they had taken shelter. Tornadoes have long been a part of life in Moore, she said, and a few times a year, in a well-worn ritual, she goes into her son’s cellar when the sirens go off.

As devastating as the tornado was, the quick thinking of some prevented the death toll from going higher.

When the tornado sirens went off around 2:15, the staff of the AgapeLand Learning Center, a day care facility, hustled some 15 children into two bathrooms, draping them with a protective covering and singing songs with them to keep them calm.

As the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathrooms, and debris rained down on the children, they remained calm, singing “You Are My Sunshine,” the assistant director, Cathy Wilson, said. Though the day care center was almost entirely destroyed, the children were unharmed.

“Not a child had a scratch,” Ms. Wilson said.

To view the online article, please click here.


About Safeguard 
Safeguard Properties is the largest mortgage field services company in the U.S. Founded in 1990 by Robert Klein and based in Valley View, Ohio, the company inspects and maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for mortgage servicers, lenders,  and other financial institutions. Safeguard employs approximately 1,700 people, in addition to a network of thousands of contractors nationally. Website: www.safeguardproperties.com.

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