MOORE, Okla. — State and local officials vowed Tuesday to rebuild this bereft suburb, shattered by a tornado that brought death and massive destruction, even as they fought poor weather to push ahead with rescue efforts.
In a day marked by continuing rain and threats of new storm activity, the National Weather Service upgrade Monday’s tornado to EF-5, the top step on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
The agency’s survey teams had found that the tornado had carried winds of more than 200 miles per hour in some areas as it wound its deadly way along a 17-mile track that left at least 24 dead, nine of whom were children.
At an afternoon news conference, officials including Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis pledged to continue to search every piece of property three times to account for all survivors and the missing — a process they were hoping to complete by Tuesday night.
The fire chief said he was confident there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble. “I'm 98 percent sure we're good,” Moore fire chief Gary Bird said at the news conference. Earlier, officials said more than 100 people are been found by rescuers.
Officials also said they would rebuild the Oklahoma City suburb.
“We will rebuild and we will regain our strength,” said Fallin, who said she had just taken an aerial tour of the tornado’s damage which was a band about 1.3 miles wide. “It was hard to look at so much debris on the ground,” she said. “In many places, homes have been taken away. It is just sticks and bricks. Street signs are gone.”
Officials were still trying to figure out the number of casualties and the cost of damaged property from the tornado that eerily followed almost the same route as the deadly storm of May 3, 1999. About 46 people were killed in the earlier tornado, which caused more than $1 billion in damage.
State officials said at least 24 bodies had been taken to the medical examiner’s office since Monday, including those of nine children, most of whom were killed when the tornado destroyed the Plaza Towers Elementary School. At least seven students died at the school, one of five schools in the area to be damaged by the storm.
On Monday night the death toll was put much higher, at 51, but state officials Tuesday morning revised the count downward, blaming communications problems for some double counting. Nearly 240 people have been injured, but that figure is expected to rise.
Officials at the news conference were hesitant to give exact numbers, saying the situation remained too unclear as rescue and recovery efforts continued.
“We don’t have any firm numbers,” Fallin said. “Bodies have been taken to the medical examiner’s office. We have also heard that bodies were taken to local funeral homes. We hope to have better numbers on that.”
More than 200 responders worked through the night and the day, especially around the Plaza school, fire chief Bird told reporters. But they had to be pulled off the search several times because of danger posed by lightning.
Persistent thunderstorms hampered recovery efforts throughout Tuesday morning and weather forecasts were not encouraging with severe rain and possible hail expected. The National Weather Service also noted that there was a possibility of more tornadoes in some parts of Oklahoma and other states, especially Texas.
Officials warned people to stay out the devastated zones so that property could be checked and rechecked for survivors. The few civilians who had trickled in took cover where they could when the rains hit, though in some parts of town, there were no more roofs and awnings to hide under.
Between bouts of hostile weather, Hazel Swain, 82, and her brother, John, 80, barely escaped another round of lightning and punishing rains. The siblings had remained in their apartment during the storm but hadn't taken cover, but instead huddled under a quilt.
“We heard this noise and it was over,” Hazel said. They said they had decided Monday not to leave the apartment during the chaotic aftermath. “We didn't think that would be wise,” she said. But eventually they had to go.
“Who would've thought we would have to come back for clothes?” asked Hazel. They were packed into a small bag — the only thing carried away by the brother and sister.
As the siblings made the long, precarious walk to their Impala — nudging past splintered two-by-fours, crushed cinder blocks, collapsed power lines — military officials warned them to hurry before another thunderstorm hit them with 60 mph gusts. “I don't know where we'll stay,” Hazel fretted.
Then the heavens opened, and the survivors once again took cover.
Earlier Tuesday, President Obama pledged that his administration would do all that it could to ease the pain caused by the tornado. His televised statement came in addition to calls Monday and Tuesday to state and local officials offering help.
“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.
“For there are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention.
“There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, and bedrooms, and classrooms, and, in time, we’re going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community,” he said.
At their news conference, local officials praised the Obama administration response.
“It is unfortunate we are seeing once again what tornadoes can do,” he said.
The scale of the damage in this community of about 55,000 people outside of Oklahoma City was huge even for a region that is often hit by storms. Monday’s tornado was the fourth since 1998.
The worst was in 1999, where winds clocked at better than 300 miles per hour roared through town. Monday’s death toll was approaching that storm, and the cost of rebuilding was expected to be in the billions of dollars.
Casualty-wise, Monday’s calamity still trailed the tornado that ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more. That tornado, on May 22, 2011, is considered the deadliest in the United States since modern record-keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.
“This has been quite an experience,” Mayor Lewis told reporters at the news conference.
“I was the actual mayor during May 3, 1999, so this is not my first rodeo at this,” he said of the earlier tornado. “But it doesn’t get an easier, especially with the loss of life.”
Even as the cleanup continued, the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more troublesome weather for Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes for parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Pearce reported from Moore, Okla., and Muskal from Los Angeles.