Search and rescue teams continue to comb through rubble in Oklahoma after a powerful tornado ripped through the state, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
It is confirmed that at least 24 people lost their lives in the deadliest tornado to strike in the United States since the twister that leveled Joplin, Mo., claimed 161 lives in 2011. Nine of those killed in the May 20 disaster were children, according to the Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office.
The death toll is down from an initial figure of 51. A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office cautioned that the death toll could rise by as many as 40 additional fatalities, but Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN that he doesn’t expect the death toll will rise past 24 as the rescue operation shifts into a recovery mode.
More than 230 people have been treated at hospitals for injuries sustained in the tornado, and more than 100 have been pulled alive out of the debris.
The twister touched down just after 3 p.m. (CST) and churned its way through the city of Moore, located in Cleveland County just south of Oklahoma City along Interstate 35 in the central part of the state.
“It really devastated an area nearly 20 miles in length,” said the Rev. Aaron Carland, executive presbyter for Indian Nations Presbytery. “That area is kind of like a war zone. It really is devastated. It did not wipe out all of Moore, but it did level a huge area.”
Carland said a number of people still are unaccounted for as search teams continue sweeps of debris and rubble fields that once were homes or businesses. He noted the overall somberness of the situation, made more difficult by the deaths of so many children.
“The really sad thing is the tremendous loss of life, especially because quite a few of those fatalities were children,” he said.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes,” Obama said at the White House.
“For all those who’ve been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead. In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed. But you will not travel that path alone,” Obama added.
Neighborhoods along the tornado’s path were ripped apart, power lines were taken down, and gas lines ruptured. Vehicles were hurled from one location to another as the powerful twister toppled walls and ripped roofs from structures in its path. CNN reported that about 2,400 homes were damaged in Moore and Oklahoma City. Insurance claims are expected to top $1 billion.
Preliminary reports indicated the tornado – measured 1.3 miles wide as it churned through Moore – stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and initially was classified as an EF4 by the National Weather Service. An EF4 designation is the second most powerful category of tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, used to determine the severity of twisters.
The NWS later determined that the tornado, which also generated baseball-sized hail, reached peak wind speeds up to 210 mph, making it an EF5 twister, the most powerful category of tornado classification.
The tornado struck a pair of schools in Moore, completely destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School and nearly leveling nearby Briarwood Elementary School. Plaza Towers was reduced to a pile of mangled steel and concrete. Gaping holes in the walls showed the inside of the Briarwood building, which also had cars hurled by the storm’s ferocity lodged in the walls.
The direct hit suffered by Plaza Towers killed seven children and left rescue workers combing through piles of rubble up to 10 feet high to find others who may be trapped under it. Many other students were not harmed when the building collapsed and walked out unscathed when rescue workers started removing the debris.
Moore Medical Center, a two-story facility, also took a direct hit from the tornado, reducing it to a single level that is no longer able to be occupied.
In addition to help from many others, Presbyterian relief efforts have started in Moore. Indian Nations Presbytery requested a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help provide aid to those affected by the tragedy and assess the next steps to be taken while providing a witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a time of uncertainty. PDA teams started arriving Tuesday and will begin their efforts as Oklahoma’s emergency response begins to wind down.
“This will be a long recovery,” Carland said in a call with PDA officials. “This is so much worse than the tornado that hit Moore in 2003. The destruction is just overwhelming. We’re here, and we’re here for the long haul.”
She continued, “People are pulling together. It’s not the first such event nor will it be the last, unfortunately.” PDA assures the people of Moore, “We will continue to be here for those who need us.”
That 2003 tornado, while destructive, did not result in any deaths though it did cause dozens of injuries and destroyed a Presbyterian church in the city.
First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City has established a fund for tornado disaster assistance in Moore. The church is accepting monetary donations and will be distributing those locally to help people affected by the disaster.
The Rev. Dr. Matt Meinke, FPC-Oklahoma City associate pastor, said the church also is trying to provide assistance by organizing a blood drive, and local clergy are coordinating efforts to offer chaplain services for those impacted by the tornado, as well as memorial services for those who perished in the tragedy.
In commemoration of the two-year anniversary of the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in nearly 60 years, New Creation Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Joplin, Mo., will send a response team to Moore with a relief trailer of supplies this week, and will accept supplies and cash contributions as part of future relief efforts.
For many residents of Moore, there was an eerie feeling of déjà vu Monday as they experienced yet another deadly force of nature.
A destructive tornado leveled the city 14 years ago. On May 3, 1999, an EF5 twister with wind speeds that reached more than 300 miles per hour, ripped through the city, covering a distance of 18 miles and killing 41 people. That also was the third costliest tornado ever in the United States, causing more than a billion dollars in damage. Only the Joplin and Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.
Many people affected by Monday’s tornado also lost everything 14 years ago.
“We have people who have had their homes destroyed for the second time,” Meinke said. “They are used to clinging to the Lord and are very resilient. The question they ask is, ‘What’s next?’ They feel they have to move on with what is important, and here that is community and togetherness. We know God is walking through this with us and will not leave us in times like this.”
Meinke said even in a time of trial and tribulation, God’s spirit is ever-present among those dealing with the tornado’s aftermath.
“We’re used to this kind of craziness; it’s part of living in this extreme weather region,” Meinke said. “But God permeates this whole community. We feel Him in the midst of tragedy and trauma. There’s never a question about whether God is with us.”
The area also is not far from the infamous Oklahoma City bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people in 1995.
Monday’s deadly twister in Moore came after the Midwest was pummeled by tornadic activity over the weekend. Additional tornadoes were reported in Iowa and Kansas, with warnings issued for Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, in addition to the states already affected by twisters.
Two men were killed in a tornado that struck Shawnee May 19, and another 40 people were injured. Just last week six people died when tornadoes twisted through north Texas.
People wanting to make financial contributions to assist the relief effort in Moore, Okla., can do so through FPC-Oklahoma City, New Creation Church, Indian Nations Presbytery or the American Red Cross.