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An Emotional Gauntlet: Tornado Survivors Start Picking Up The Pieces

The destruction was wide and devastating in Moore, Okla., on Monday after a tornado roared through.
RIchard Rowe
Reuters /Landov
The destruction was wide and devastating in Moore, Okla., on Monday after a tornado roared through.

(We're following the news from Oklahoma, where a tornado devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday. Most recent update: 8:40 p.m. ET.)

A day after a monster EF-5 tornado pummeled Moore, Okla., the focus turned to the victims.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn spent the day in the city talking to survivors. Christie Parrish decided to leave her home for her sister's shelter.

"You could hear [the tornado] like a mile away and it sounded like this roar, and you could just hear it and feel the debris hitting our shelter and we came out and you could see smoke from our neighborhood and I got over there and there's nothing there," she said.

She saw rescuers digging through the rubble that became of the house next door. She thought, that like she was doing, rescuers were searching for pets.

They weren't.

Instead, they pulled out the lifeless body of Parrish's neighbor, who they later learned had her little boy ripped out of her arms.

"It is an emotional gauntlet survivors here are moving through," Wade reported for All Things Considered. "At first there is the titillating excitement of a massive storm bearing down on your town but you expect to be OK. Then comes apprehension as the storm turns directly towards you. Then absolute terror as your life hangs in the balance. As you step out of the shelter or the closet or the bathroom back into the day, there's a flood of relief and joy. But that quickly turns to shock and horror as the devastation around you and the horrible turn fate has dealt you makes itself at home."

Early this morning, we got a glint of good news from officials. After beginning the day with word that at least 51 people had been killed and that the number of dead might top 90, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office said that the official death toll was 24 — a figure that could still change. The fatalities included at least 9 children. The spokeswoman, Amy Elliott, said during a televised news conference the initial number included some victims who were counted twice.

Elliott was asked if she expected rescue workers to find more victims.

"I pray that there's not, but I feel that there is," Elliott said.

The new information did not change the fact that the cost — in lives and damage — from the storm is expected to rival that from a tornado that devastated the same part of the nation in May 1999. That twister left behind "46 dead and 800 injured, more than 8,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and total property damage of nearly $1.5 billion," as NOAA has reported. In fact, as the National Weather Service received field reports, it upgraded the tornado to a top-of-the-scale EF-5, meaning it had winds in excess of 200 mph.

Throughout the day, rescue workers continued sifting through the rubble in an effort to find survivors. Police said that they had searched through most structures, but they were giving them a second and third pass.

Kurt Gwartney with NPR member station KGOU said the scene in Moore today was still shocking. He said in one spot he saw 80 to 90 cars piled on top of each other.

"You can't really figure out how that would happen, but there it is right in front of you," Kurt said.

At the White House, President Obama said at mid-morning that the nation's prayers are with the people of Oklahoma and that the federal government will have its resources on the ground there for "as long as it takes" to help the community get back on its feet.

We'll be following the news as the day continues. So hit your refresh button to make sure you're seeing our latest updates. We'll add related posts as well. Note: As happens during news events such as this, there will be information that later proves to have been incorrect — as has happened with the initial reports from officials about the death toll. We'll focus on what's being reported by NPR and other news trusted news outlets, and on information provided by officials with direct knowledge of the situation. If some information proves to have been wrong, we'll correct the record and explain what happened.

Update at 8:40 p.m. ET: Woman Survived In Bank Vault:

Erica Garrett in Oklahoma City tells reporter Brad Gibson from member station KWGS that she and seven others survived by sheltering in a bank vault.

Garrett, who along with fellow employees of the Tinker Federal Credit Union branch, two customers and a police officer, got inside the vault.

"It was terrifying. It was loud, it was roaring, debris was flying in from underneath [the vault door]," she said. "You could hear it, you could feel it, you could feel your ears popping."

"There was the smell of gas coming in," Garrett said. "We knew the branch was gone. We could see the daylight coming in from the crack under the door."

Update at 4:12 p.m. ET. Top Scale Tornado:

The National Weather Service now confirms that based on preliminary data gathered in the field, this tornado produced winds in excess of 200 mph, making it a top-of-the-scale EF-5.

In a statement, NWS said damage points to an EF-1 tornado that rapidly — during a 4 mile or 10 minute stretch — intensified into an EF-5.

Update at 3:50 p.m. ET. Blank Stares:

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has spent the day in Moore. He said the damage reminds him a lot of what he saw in Joplin, Mo., where an EF-5 tornado killed more 100 people back in May of 2011.

"It's just a giant trough that has been carved out of the ground. Everywhere [the tornado] went, it left nothing behind," Wade tells our Newscast unit.

He said that wherever you walk, you see people with "blank looks on their faces."

"I think they're thrilled and relieved that they survived the storm," Wade said. "But it's certainly cruel fate to have everything one owned completely annihilated."

Update at 3:42 p.m. ET. EF-5 Damage Found:

The National Weather Service in Norman just tweeted:

And EF-5 tornado is the strongest on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Damage Scale. It indicates wind speeds in excess of 200 mph.

Update at 3:16 p.m. ET. Perimeters Set Up:

Kurt Gwartney with NPR member station KGOU reports from Moore that police have set up a perimeter around the harder hit areas. He said while emergency personnel continued to sift through the rubble, facilities — like portable toilets — have been brought into town.

Kurt told our Newscast desk that things today, however, are just as shocking as they were yesterday.

He said in one spot he saw 80 to 90 cars piled on top of each other.

"You can't really figure out how that would happen, but there it is right in front of you," Kurt said.

Update at 2:42 p.m. ET. Insurance Village:

NPR's Alan Greenblatt sends this dispatch from Moore:

Update at 2:23 p.m. ET. Schools Did Not Have Safe Rooms:

Albert Ashwood, of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said during a televised news conference that neither of the schools hit by the tornado had safe rooms. They also did not have basements. Ashwood said FEMA had funded safe rooms for more than 100 schools in the state but these two were not among them.

Saferooms, he said, are a "mitigating measure. It's not absolute." However, he said, any safety measure could've helped the seven kids who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

There are 556 school districts in Oklahoma with 1,781 schools.

Update at 2:00 p.m. ET. 190 MPH:

At a televised press conference, Rick Smith, of the National Weather Service, said their preliminary survey shows a top wind speed of 190 mph, "but we're not done and it could go higher."

That keeps the tornado as an EF-4.

Update at 1:48 p.m. ET. Working Toward Better Count:

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said during a televised press conference that the state is trying to get a better handle on just how many people died because of Monday's tornado.

She said that the Medical Examiner had received 24 bodies, but other bodies may have been transported to local funeral homes. She said 237 people were injured.

Fallin said she took an aerial tour of the area and the damage is "wide and hard to look at."

Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, called this tornado "the storm of storms."

Cornett said in some places the debris is 4-feet deep and it is amazing that many people had come out of this alive

"That so many lives were spared, is a testament to the technology," Cornett said, adding that the warning system was "excellent."

Update at 1:13 p.m. ET. 17-Mile Path:

The National Weather Service's Norman, Okla. office tweets:

Update at 12:48 p.m. ET. Flags Half-Staff:

House Speaker John Boehner has ordered the flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff.

"Our hearts and our prayers go out to those in Oklahoma who have been victimized by this storm, especially our colleague Tom Cole," Boehner said in a statement to press. "Moore, Okla. is his hometown, so obviously he's there, and so I've ordered the flags this morning to be lowered to half-staff in honor of those who've suffered through this terrible storm."

Update at 11:11 a.m. ET. 9 Children Dead:

Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner, said during a televised news conference that nine children are among the 24 who are dead.

Elliott explained that without cell phones, some officials may have double counted fatalities when they reported them over two-way radios. That explains the higher number officials were reporting through the night.

She said that seven of the nine children were found in one elementary school and two others were found elsewhere.

Elliott was asked if she expected rescue workers to find more victims.

"I pray that there's not, but I feel that there is," Elliott said.

Update at 10:10 a.m. ET. Obama: "As Long As It Takes."

"The people of Moore should know that the country will remain on the ground there for them, [and] beside them, as long as it takes," President Obama just said at the White House.

He said the federal government is putting "all the resources that they need at their disposal."

"Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today," the president added. "We will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes."

Update at 10 a.m. ET. At Least 7 Children Killed:

The 24 confirmed fatalities include at least 7 children, state medical examiner's office spokeswoman Amy Elliott tells The Associated Press.

President Obama is due to address the nation in the coming minutes.

Update at 9:30 a.m. ET. Official Death Toll Revised Down:

A glimmer of good news: State officials now say there are 24 confirmed deaths, not the 51 they reported earlier. Apparently, some victims may have been counted twice.

Update at 9:15 a.m. ET. Survivor's Missing Dog Is Found As TV Crew Is Filming:

There will be many emotional stories of survival and family members finding each other in the aftermath of the storm. As one TV crew was interviewing Barbara Garcia of Moore, she talked of huddling in her home with her dog — and losing hold of the pet when the tornado destroyed the house.

As Garcia was speaking, the schnauzer was spotted under some debris. Their reunion is touching. As Garcia says, one of her prayers was answered.

Another nice moment in the interview: The reporter asks Garcia if she can comprehend what happened. "I know exactly what happened here, exactly," says Garcia, with the seasoned voice of someone who lives in tornado alley.

Update at 8:40 a.m. ET. No Official Update Yet On Death Toll:

Though a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office has warned that the death toll may top 90, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) just told CNN that she does not have "an updated number at this point in time."

"We have a lot of different moving parts" and officials want to be careful about releasing such figures, she added. So the official death toll remains at 51.

Update at 8:30 a.m. ET. Governor To Be Part Of News Conference.

From Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's Twitter page:

That's 1 p.m. ET.

Update at 8:15 a.m. ET. News Conference Delayed:

A news conference to be held by police and other officials in Moore is now expected to happen at 1 p.m. ET, CNN says, not 8 a.m. ET as earlier thought.

Update at 8:10 a.m. ET. "All I could see was destruction":

Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki saw the tornado warnings on television Monday and headed toward Moore. She writes that "by the time I got to Moore, all I could see was destruction."

Ogrocki was at one of Moore's elementary schools as rescuers brought children out alive. "I know students are among those who died in the tornado," she says, "but for a moment, there was hope in the devastation."

Update at 7:55 a.m. ET. About 100 Rescued From Rubble So Far.

Though the death toll is expected to rise, there is this good news: CNN says it's been told by authorities that about 100 people — so far — have been found alive and rescued from the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Update at 7:25 a.m. ET. "2-Mile Wide Lawnmower Blade":

Monday's tornado was like "a 2-mile wide lawnmower blade" that chewed up everything in its path as it went through Moore, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb (R) just told CNN.

Update at 7:20 a.m. ET. Listening For Voices:

From The Associated Press: "Rescuers walked through neighborhoods where Monday's powerful twister flattened home after home, to listen for any voices calling out from the rubble."

Update at 6:45 a.m. ET. News Conference Expected; Lightning And Rain In Area:

TV crews in Moore are packing up to head for shelter as rain resumes and lightning can be seen in the sky. Meanwhile, CNN says police officials expect to hold a news conference at 8 a.m. ET. (Note at 8:15 a.m. ET: The news conference is now set for 1 p.m. ET.)

Update at 6:35 a.m. ET. How To Help, Where To Go For Information:

The White House blog has a post that outlines "Resources and Information for Those Affected by Oklahoma Tornadoes."

Update at 6:30 a.m. ET. President Obama To Address Nation:

The president is expected to make a statement about the tragedy in Oklahoma at 10 a.m. ET.

Related posts:

-- All our coverage of the tornado is collected here.

-- Oklahoma Tornados: Finding Aid, Giving Aid.

-- VIDEO: A Time-Lapse Of The Tornado In Oklahoma.

-- Measuring The Power Of Deadly Tornadoes.

-- A Brief History Of Oklahoma Tornadoes.

-- Tweets Capture 'Shock And Awe' At Tornado's Deadly Power.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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