Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tornado like no other

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Oklahoma declared a major disaster

US president Barack Obama grants federal aid to Oklahoma after a deadly tornado kills at least 51 people.

As the school day was ending, parents in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore were forced to make an impossible calculation – rush to schools to gather up their children and risk being caught in the open, or trust that the reinforced walls of the school buildings would shelter them.

A tornado was coming, one that may be the most destructive to ever strike the United States. There would be little respite.

After initial reports of up to 91 dead, authorities lowered the official death toll to at least 24.

Fire and destruction: The Tower Plaza blazes in Moore.

Fire and destruction: The Plaza Towers Elementary School blazes in Moore. Photo: AP

The state medical examiner's office has received 24 bodies, according to Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer. As many as 51 deaths have been reported to the agency, she said.


Rescuers worked into the morning in Moore, where there was little hope any more children would be found alive in the wreckage of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where at least seven children died.

It is not known how many of those children were students of Plaza Towers, where 24 were unaccounted for at midnight. It is thought, hoped, that some may have been evacuated to shelters and churches.

A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., Monday.

Into safe arms: A woman carries a child away from the collapsed school. Photo: AP

Throughout the long evening and into the night, one father waited for news of his nine-year-old among the wreckage of the school, CNN reported, sitting tired and tear stained, gracious and calm even as a doctor came to tell him his child might not be found.

''We will rebuild'' and ''take care of our people,'' Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said today in an interview with CNN. ''The strength of our people, the courage, the perseverance − we have come back much stronger after the tragedies we've been through.''

The tornado that hit on Monday afternoon followed the path of two terrible tornadoes, those that struck in 2003 and 1999. During the 1999 storm the strongest wind recordings made on Earth were taken - 486 kilometres an hour.

Veterans of the 1999 disaster say the tornado that hit on Monday was worse. Parts of Moore, in the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City, were obliterated, with everything, even grass, sucked away by the wind.

The tornado was categorised EF4, the second most powerful on a scale from one to five. It is thought that might be increased and categorisation does not begin to describe what those in its path faced.

Most tornado funnels are tall and spindly - hence the term twister. This one moved across the ground squat and strong, its footprint over 3 kilometres wide at some points. Tornado funnels typically touch the ground and lift away as the storms they are born of move across the landscape. This funnel was in contact with the ground for a terrible 40 minutes.

A boy is pulled from beneath a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School.

A boy is pulled from beneath a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo: Sue Ogrocki

The first warnings came about 2.40pm. A menacing weather system, one that had killed two the previous day, was about to turn violent again.

By 2.56pm the funnel had hit the ground outside Oklahoma City at Newcastle. Sirens sounded. In the city, staff of the House of Representatives fled to basements as the media broadcast storm warnings. Residents were told to shelter in their basements.

But the ground is hard around Oklahoma City and many residents don't have storm shelters. Those who could not get underground tried to take shelter in bathtubs from what might have been the most destructive tornado recorded.

Horror: A teacher hugs a child at Briarwood Elementary school after the monstrous tornado flattened the school.

Horror: A teacher hugs a child at Briarwood Elementary school after the monstrous tornado flattened the building. Photo: AP

At Plaza Towers Elementary, children in the fifth and sixth grades had already been evacuated to a church. It is thought those in kindergarten, first and second grades were sheltering but many from the third grade are thought to have been in the corridor when the tornado slammed into the school.

''I had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado,'' one girl told a local television station, KFOR. Others described a teacher lying across children to protect them. All survived.

James Rushing, who lives across the street, ran to the school to take shelter, thinking the building would be safer than his home. ''About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,'' he told Associated Press.

"Oklahoma faces a long road ahead, but will not travel that path alone": Barack Obama addresses the media after meeting with his disaster response team.

"Oklahoma faces a long road ahead, but will not travel that path alone": Barack Obama addresses the media after meeting with his disaster response team. Photo: AP

A boy rescued from the corridor told a reporter: ''It was scary and a lot of my friends were still there when I left.''

Struggling to describe the scene, KFOR's Lance West said: ''I have never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is without question the most horrific,'' before his voice broke.

One survivor pacing the streets told of trying to find loved ones and of not being able even to locate his home among the stripped driveways and slabs. Another man managed to find his grandmother wandering dazed, carrying her dog.

At the school, rescuers were confronted by a three-metre sea of debris as they worked through the dusk and into the night to dig out the children and staff.

Shattered-looking survivors were passed along human chains. A mother and her seven-month-old baby were found dead, having failed to find shelter in a large freezer.

By 9pm it became clear that what had been a rescue was becoming a recovery operation. Rescuers began using more heavy equipment to work faster. News broke that some of the children, perhaps seven, had been found dead in a pool of water.

As the operation continued through the night, forecasters warned that the weather was not expected to improve and that the tornado season had a month to run in what is known as twister ally.

Meanwhile, Americans prepared themselves, yet again, for the sight of a search for bodies in wrecked homes, and of dead children being removed from a primary school.

with Bloomberg

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