JNN 21 May 2013 Oklahoma : A monstrous tornado that Killed 91 with 20 children among those killed may be remembered as among the largest and most destructive in American history roared through a heavily populated suburb of Oklahoma City, cutting a swathe as much as two miles wide and flattening homes, shops, hospitals and, perhaps most devastatingly, schools that had no time to evacuate.
Officials say the death toll could top – many from a single elementary school that had been ripped apart by the twister, which was said to have sustained circulating winds of 200mph or more. Debris from the twister dropped like rain in Tulsa, a hundred miles away.
Seven children among those killed were confirmed as having drowned after pipes burst at Plaza Towers school. The children are believed to have been unable to escape the water as they were trapped beneath rubble at the time of the burst.
Officials made clear that the numbers wounded and killed was likely to rise quickly. At least 120 patients had been rushed to area hospitals of whom 10 had critical injuries, officials said. Also among those admitted for treatment were more than 50 children, they added.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. He will be meeting with his disaster response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, later today before delivering a statement on the devastating tornado
The tornado, which for now is measured as an EF4 but might yet be upgraded to a top-level EF5, ploughed through the community of Moore just to the south of Oklahoma City in the early hours of the afternoon. That in itself was unusual. It is more usual for twisters to strike in the evening hours, when schools, at least, have emptied out. The first warnings were issued at about 3.40 pm local time. The twister began its deadly march about eight minutes later.
News network choppers watched as the giant funnel cloud marched with unbearable slowness as commentators speculated where it was landing, block by block. Suddenly, as the nation watched, the funnel ‘roped out’, the moment when the twister dies. It was then only a few minutes before same helicopters turned into the area to see what kind of damage had been done. Very quickly, the terrifying of the carnage became clear.
As ever with tornadoes, the distance between destroyed and untouched could have been measured in feet. But structures that fell on the wrong side of the dividing line were often shredded. As emergency crews rushed in a first, desperate focus of activity was the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where 75 young students and staff were taking shelter when the twister hit. Almost nothing of the school building was left standing when it had passed.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school, where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there. “About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” he said. The students were apparently sent to a toilet to take cover.
A man with a megaphone stood near a Catholic church last night, calling out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons’ and daughters’ names.
Don Denton hadn’t heard from his two sons since the tornado hit the town, but the man who has endured six back surgeries and walks with a severe limp said he walked about two miles as he searched for them. As reports of the storm came in, Denton’s 16-year-old texted him, telling him to call.
“I was trying to call him, and I couldn’t get through,” Denton said. Eventually, Denton said, his sons spotted him in the crowd. They were fine, but upset to hear that their grandparents’ home was destroyed.
As dusk began to fall, heavy equipment was rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors. Because the ground was muddy, bulldozers and front-end loaders were getting stuck. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.
Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.
Tiffany Thronesberry said she heard from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, shortly after the tornado struck. “I got a phone call from her screaming, ‘Help! Help! I can’t breathe. My house is on top of me!”‘ Thronesberry said. Thronesberry hurried to her mother’s house, where first responders had already pulled her out. Her mother was hospitalized for treatment of cuts and bruises.
The tornado also destroyed the city hospital and numerous businesses. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop. All of my employees were in the vault,” Lewis said. Lewis, who was also the mayor of Moore when the strongest tornado on record whipped the city in 1999, said the most recent storm won’t deter the community from rebuilding.
Chris Calvert saw the menacing tornado from about a mile away. “I was close enough to hear it,” he said. “It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it.” Even though his subdivision is a mile from the tornado’s path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa Claus’ lap in his yard.
Last night, rescue crews were swarming across the heaps of rubbish that the school had been reduced to, moving gingerly, listening for signs of life below and trying not to dislodge debris that might hurt anyone buried beneath. There was concern that as many as 25 pupils were still not accounted for as darkness fell. But in those few hours of daylight that rescuers had left several of the children were successfully pulled from the rubble alive.
“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” said James Rushing, who had rushed to the school moments before the tornado hit. His five-year-old foster son was enrolled in class there. Children who survived spoke of how teachers had lied down on top of them to offer some modicum of protection.
In May of 1999, the same Oklahoma City suburb was hit by a tornado so powerful it produced the fastest winds ever recorded on the surface of the Earth – just over 300 MPH. It is meanwhile exactly two years since a single tornado killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, just the other side of the Oklahoma state line.
A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City’s rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.
Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system. The powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed Moore in May 1999. That storm produced the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth’s surface – 302 mph.
Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Missouri, said it’s unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003. Oklahoma City has had more tornado strikes than any other city in the United States,” the city government’s website says.
The devastation in Oklahoma came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more. Yesterday, Joplin organized a team of about a dozen police and firefighters to assist in Moore. Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said his community remembers the assistance it received in 2011 and feels an obligation to lend a hand in Moore.
That May 22, 2011 tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Michigan, when 116 people died.
Country music star Toby Keith, who grew up in Moore, saidhis hometown would persevere. “Hometown got hit for the gazillionth time. Rise again Moore Oklahoma,” Keith tweeted yesterday evening.
10 deadliest tornadoes in the United States since 1900
695 deaths March 18, 1925, in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
216 deaths April 5, 1936, in Tupelo, Mississippi.
203 deaths April 6, 1936, in Gainesville, Georgia.
181 deaths April 9, 1947, in Woodward, Oklahoma.
158 deaths May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Missouri.
143 deaths April 24, 1908, in Amite, Louisiana, and Purvis, Mississippi.
116 deaths June 8, 1953, in Flint, Michigan.
114 deaths May 11, 1953 in Waco, Texas.
114 deaths May 18, 1902 in Goliad, Texas.
103 deaths March 23, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska.