Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 22, 2013

Okla. officials vow not to quit looking until everyone is found

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

MOORE, Okla. — The tornado that killed 24 people and injured at least 100 others in the Moore and Oklahoma City area cut a 17-mile-long path that started in Newcastle and ended at Lake Stanley Draper. Nine of the dead are children.

At a press conference Tuesday, a tearful Gov. Mary Fallin said the tornado was one of the worst storms Oklahoma has ever faced. The destruction of two Moore elementary schools made it especially difficult to bear.

Fallin described walking through thick mud at the Plaza Towers Elementary school site. She said the scene was "surreal."

The two schools destroyed by the Monday afternoon tornado were Briarwood Elementary School at 14901 S. Hudson in Oklahoma City, Moore school district, and Plaza Towers, 852 SW 11th St., Moore.

Moore Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce, supported by her assistant superintendent, broke down while reading a prepared statement.

"I would like to extend my sincere sympathies," she said. "Our hearts go out to each of you, and we are suffering with you."

Pierce said safety is the district’s “prime priority” but she did not stay to answer questions regarding the school’s shelter policy.

Moore residents just approved a $126.4 million school bond that includes the construction of two elementary schools and one junior high school. It is the largest bond in the school’s history, but officials did not say whether tornado safe rooms will be included in the new schools as part of those projects. Recently built Norman schools, such as Reagan Elementary, have included several safe rooms in the design.

Pierce said Moore school system has a crisis plan in place, the schools were well prepared, and all schools implemented that plan at each school site. Search and rescue was ongoing, but was expected to conclude Tuesday night.

"We kept over 200 responders out in the field last night," said Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird. "We stayed at the school last night. We are still at Plaza Towers."

Bird said no survivors or victims were found Tuesday.

"At this time, the dogs are not making any hits for persons," Bird said.

U.S. Navy personnel stationed at Tinker Air Force Base were among the search and rescue teams who combed through every piece of rubble at the school. Emergency responders and subsidiary groups helping with the search will be thorough at every building, Bird said.

"We do not need any more volunteers," Bird said. "We appreciate all of the support, but we have enough volunteers at this time."

Crews from Cleveland and Oklahoma counties, as well as other assisting counties from across the state, have helped with search and rescue and clearing roads. Help also came from the National Guard, Cleveland and Oklahoma county sheriffs’ offices, sheriffs departments from across the state, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, as well as fire and police departments from Moore, Oklahoma City, Norman and beyond.

"We will be through every damaged piece of property in this city at least three times before this is done, and we hope to be done by dark tonight," Bird said.

Gov. Fallin thanked FEMA for showing up so promptly. She said Pres. Barack Obama phoned again, promising every means of possible support. Federal agencies including the ATF and FBI arrived Tuesday.

"It’s been a very trying couple of days for the state of Oklahoma," Fallin said. "We’ve also seen the courage and the resilience and the strength of the people."

National Weather Service Warning coordinator Rick Smith said the tornado touched down at 2:45 p.m. and ended at 3:35 p.m. Those 50 minutes are now history, but the enormity of the loss is hard to absorb, even for those who were there 14 years ago when another EF-5 tornado cut a similar path through Moore.

"I was the actual mayor in May 1999, so this is not my first rodeo on this," said Mayor Glenn Lewis.

Lewis said his home was not hit by Monday’s tornado. He said the city staff has worked around the clock to restore order.

"They’re holding up pretty good," he said. "None of us has had any sleep."

Lewis said water is back on. The Oklahoma City Water Treatment Plant at Lake Draper was damaged, affecting Moore and some Oklahoma City water customers. Moore also has 17 emergency wells, four of which are maintained and can be used without treating the water.

"Everything is up and running," Lewis said. "We’ve had a well-organized team."

Fallin said the loss of children was especially heartbreaking.

"We frankly don’t even know yet if there are still missing people," she said.

The first goal is to continue rescue and recovery. Fallin and each of the officials who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference vowed not to quit until “every piece of debris” had been turned over in the search for survivors.

Moore Police Chief Jerry Stillings asked people to stay out of the impacted areas, especially Telephone Road, Santa Fe and 19th Street.

"We have to have people out of those affected areas so that we can do that work and shrink that perimeter," Stillings said. "There isn’t anything that you can do at this time and there are a lot of safety issues."

People who were impacted by the tornado are asked to call 1-800-621-FEMA as soon as possible and register for assistance.

But federal officials had no answers for the 500 people who questioned the lack of help this past year. Residents learned in January money from a federal program for saferoom assistance would not be available. Residents who applied had been selected by a lottery process, but the federal funds were not granted because Cleveland County hadn’t had a significant tornado in the prior year.

Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland said the county usually gets a set amount of money.

"What we opted was to pay for 75 percent," Cleveland said. "You have to pay for the saferoom first, then you get a reimbursement."

Norman also anticipated having federal funds to help 500 residents build shelters, but Norman Fire Chief Jim Fullingim announced in January those funds would become available in time for the 2013 storm season.

Bird said he is not sure how many, if any, Moore residents might have also been expecting help with storm shelters.

"We grieve with our fellow residents of Cleveland County," County Commissioner Darry Stacy said. "It’s been a rough few days for Cleveland County. As you know we started on Sunday (in Little Axe). Crews are out 24 hours and involved in every aspect of the recovery."

Cleveland said the Bella Foundation and the Moore Animal Shelter is set up to take displaced animals at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds.

"We’re going to be in this until the very end," Stacy said. "We’re a very resilient county."