(MCT) MOORE, Okla. — Under a sunny sky, residents of this Oklahoma City suburb began cleaning up debris from the monstrous tornado that inflicted death and destruction — bodies of animals, overturned cars, homes reduced to rubble — as more information emerged about the human victims.
The twister killed 24 people, the state medical examiner said Wednesday, 10 of them children, including two infants. The dead ranged from a 4-month-old boy to a 70-year-old woman and included two 9-year-olds who were best friends. The causes of death were primarily blunt-force trauma and asphyxiation. All of the missing had been accounted for.
Officials also updated their estimate of damaged or destroyed homes to 13,000, affecting 33,000 people and causing up to $2 billion in damage.
“The numbers of this event are becoming even more staggering,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told reporters at Moore City Hall.
Some details about the victims emerged. The infants, 4-month-old Case Futrell and 7-month-old Sydnee Vargyas, died of head injuries, the medical examiner said. Of the other eight children, who ranged in age from 4 to 9, six died of suffocation and two from massive trauma. Seven were killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which collapsed as students and teachers sought shelter in hallways and restrooms. The school had no tornado-safe room.
Sharon Johnson, a volunteer with the Oklahoma Disaster Relief Chaplaincy, helped break the news Tuesday to families of Plaza Towers third-graders that their children were dead.
Two of the 9-year-olds always held hands, Johnson said, adding that the father of one “kept saying, ‘He was my only child, he was my only child.’ … He was just saying, ‘He’s gone.’”
Johnson said she and other chaplains are trained to be professional, but it’s hard to stay composed.
“I held up really good, and then I went outside where there was nobody, and I cried,” she said.
One of the victims, Terri Long, 49, was described by friend Linda Webb as a compassionate and involved citizen of Moore. They met a few years ago after Long began volunteering for Webb’s nonprofit organization, Ally’s House, which raises money for families with children who have cancer.
Whenever the organization put out a call for help, Long was the first to lend a hand, Webb said.
“She’d be out there in the heat, the cold — no matter what,” she said. “A volunteer for all seasons.”
Meanwhile, at Moore Cemetery, hundreds of volunteers gathered with shovels, rakes and trash bags to clean up for upcoming funerals. Chain saws roared and volunteers gave tetanus shots to those who would be picking up debris. Others cooked food and passed out water as the sweet smell of cedar wood drifted through the air.
It was the first opportunity many of the volunteers had to help, and they jumped at the chance. They wanted to do something, they said. Anything.
“I didn’t care if I was cleaning toilets or picking up trash, I just wanted to help,” said Mike Carpenter, a Moore resident whose home was unscathed. “That’s the Oklahoma spirit.”
President Barack Obama will visit the disaster-ravaged area Sunday, and federal and state officials pledged to help for as long as it takes.
“So, a lot of work to be done now in terms of recovery,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at an Oklahoma news conference. “At some point, the cameras will leave … but on behalf of President Obama and on behalf of FEMA, we will be here to stay until this recovery is complete.”
Many of the tasks required big machinery and a stomach for ghastly sights. Mike Roman, a single mother of two with glitter-polished nails and curly blond hair in a bun, spent most of the day hauling away the carcasses of horses from a farm near Moore.
With a forklift, a mini-tractor, a truck and a trailer, Roman’s M&M Animal Disposal tackled a 10-foot pile of gnarled horses, donkeys and a pig, bringing them to a dump, where a long line of trucks was forming. Other truck drivers pinched their noses and looked the other way as she zipped by.
Roman said she picked up 28 carcasses during a 2009 tornado that hit nearby Norman, Okla., but this time she has retrieved 52 so far.
“This is the worst I’ve seen,” she said. “You realize there are these animals that don’t know where to run.”
Many blocks of Moore still resembled a war zone, with areas blocked off by police tape and men in Army uniforms patrolling in ATVs. Two looters were arrested Tuesday night, police said.
Homeowners returning to check on their property and retrieve essentials had to pass through police barricades and show ID. Many roads were closed, causing massive traffic jams and forcing residents to hike in and haul out possessions on foot. On each block, a few families picked through debris as bulldozers and backhoes buzzed.
Willie Gouge returned to his home to fill a trash bag with essentials. He found somebody else’s lawn chair lodged in his shredded roof and his living room walls perforated by holes. This was his first home. He wasn’t sure if he and his wife would keep living there.
“It’s like having a car,” he said. “Once you wreck it, it just doesn’t feel the same even after you repair it. Feels like we’ve been violated by the storm.”
Gouge sheltered his in-laws in his storm cellar, which probably saved their lives — their home was reduced to a cement slab.
Local officials deflected criticism of tornado preparations, saying they had taken every precaution to protect lives. Tornado sirens sounded about 18 minutes before touchdown, alerting residents to take shelter.
Gov. Mary Fallin encouraged more Oklahomans to build tornado-safe rooms, but she said the shelters would not be required. More than $12 million from a joint state and federal fund had been spent for $2,000 rebates to state residents who installed safe rooms, officials said.
Officials tried to restore some sense of normalcy to a region where upside-down cars still littered the streets and dozens of homes were without roofs. School graduations will go on as planned this weekend, and the Big 12 Conference college baseball tournament will begin in Oklahoma City on Thursday morning after being delayed a day by the storm.
The mayor, Cornett, called the tournament “an appropriate diversion” for the shattered city’s morale. But he also warned of long, difficult days ahead.
“I’ll be throwing out the first pitch at 9 and then attending the first funeral at 10,” he said.
Times staff writers Alana Semuels, Stephen Ceasar and Rick Rojas in Los Angeles and Matt Pearce in Oklahoma contributed to this report.
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-TORNADO
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20130522 Vortex tornado, 20130522 Tornado Alley