Massive Tornado Takes Aim At Moore, Oklahoma

May 21, 2013
Originally published on May 21, 2013 11:13 am

Transcript

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If you grew up in the middle of the country, you grew up around tornadoes. You hear the lore of great storms past. You learned very young how to take shelter. When a siren wails, you know just what to do. Yet, even in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, people could not be entirely prepared for the devastation they faced yesterday.

A tornado destroyed two elementary schools that were in its path, and also multiple neighborhoods. The twister killed at least 24 people. At least 240 were injured, and many more are expected, as recovery efforts continue.

The tornado reached more than a mile wide - stunning - and packed winds over 200 miles an hour. It's already being called one of the worst tornadoes in American history.

Kurt Gwartney of member station KGOU spent the evening walking through the area.

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KURT GWARTNEY, BYLINE: It wasn't long after the tornado roared across town that helicopters began to hover over the destruction. The damage from this tornado was so widespread that you needed to be high in the air to fully grasp how bad it was.

Oklahomans knew a storm like this was possible last week, when the National Weather Service warned residents to prepare for a significant severe weather event. They were right. This massive tornado, more than a mile wide, spent 40 minutes on the ground and traveled about 20 miles. It hit the southern part of the Oklahoma City metro, following a similar path to a tornado that killed dozens of people in May of 1999.

For Rosanna Smith, yesterday's tornado was by far the worst.

ROSANNA SMITH: The May 3rd tornado, I lived here, and it missed me by a mile, because it was on 12th Street. And the second one that came through here missed by a half a mile. And I even said: I bet the next one nails me.

GWARTNEY: That prediction came true. After the storm, Smith, like many of her neighbors, found herself buried in the rubble of her home.

SMITH: I was in that little crevice right there, and I thought I needed help out. And when it - the storm passed, I heard my neighbors screaming for help. And so I managed to kick some of that debris away, and I crawled out of that little crevice there.

GWARTNEY: She stands balanced on a five-foot-high pile of bricks, splintered boards and soggy drywall. She's picking out bits of clothing and other personal items scattered in the debris of what was her two-story home.

Tonya Williams also lives in the Little River neighborhood of Moore. She says her family has nothing left except for a few belongings they piled into a plastic children's wagon. The five of them move single file down the muddy sidewalk, dragging the wagon over downed power lines.

TONYA WILLIAMS: We had gotten in our hall closet, and we heard the train sound and doors started to open. The next thing you know, everything was pushed in on us, and the house was completely gone.

GWARTNEY: It's not unusual to hear stories like this in Oklahoma during the spring. It is, after all, in Tornado Alley. Typically, many of these storms wind their way through the mostly undeveloped landscape. But this tornado took direct aim on the densely populated city of Moore. Whole neighborhoods were flattened, two elementary schools and a hospital destroyed. Not long after the tornado hit, people rushed out to help.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, I got towels, tarps and water if anyone needs them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just jumping in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's what we're here for.

GWARTNEY: This group of a dozen young men and women are piled in a white pickup truck. They're driving around, looking to help others dig through what's left behind.

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GWARTNEY: The help poured in throughout the evening, and emergency officials, like Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, say what's needed is patience.

BILL CITTY: We're still trying to search some of those areas out, as well as people that can't make contact and may still be out there. So that's going to take time. We want to make sure don't want to miss anything.

GWARTNEY: That's why crews worked through the night, searching areas they had already searched once before, with their lights the only illumination in the midst of the darkness and destruction. They hope to find survivors, but the death toll continues to climb.

For NPR News, I'm Kurt Gwartney in Oklahoma City.

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GREENE: And we'll continue to follow developments in Oklahoma throughout the day at NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.