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Oklahomans Cope With Loss, Tally Costs as Rescue Effort Shifts to Recovery

May 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The numbers piled up today in Moore, Okla., two days after the town was ravaged by a tornado.

As authorities totaled the financial costs, residents coped with devastating loss, tallying the damages close to home.

The first official estimates came this morning: 12,000 to 13,000 homes damaged or destroyed across a disaster zone that stretches for more than 17 miles and an insurance bill that could top two billion dollars.

The secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, flew in from Washington to pledge full support from FEMA, the agency that oversees disaster aid.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO, United States: We will be here to stay. At some point, the cameras will leave. The national ones will leave first, then the local ones. But on behalf of President Obama and on behalf of FEMA, we will be here to stay until this recovery is complete.

GWEN IFILL: By this morning, more than 1,000 storm victims had registered with FEMA. Local officials are estimating that as many as 33,000 residents were affected, in one way or another.

MICHAEL RAMIREZ, Tornado Survivor: I’m just grateful that we weren’t here. You know, my wife’s with me, so that’s all I could ask for.

GWEN IFILL: This afternoon, more of them were allowed back to see what remained of the lives they knew before the storm.

SHARON CAMPER, Tornado Survivor: It’s just hard to imagine that one day, you walk out of your house, and the next few minutes, you come back and it looks like this.

CHRIS CATHY, Tornado Survivor: This is the first tornado I have been in, so it was — it was something else. I don’t want to do it again.

QUESTION: Will you rebuild here?

CHRIS CATHY: No. Move somewhere else.

GWEN IFILL: Some of those returning lived in the Westmoor neighborhood. It lies between the two elementary schools that were ravaged by the tornado, Briarwood and Plaza Towers. Now ceilings and roofs are gone, replaced with a view of the sky. Even where rooms are still standing, their contents are an unrecognizable mess.

Outside, trees that managed to keep their roots anchored stand stripped clean of their bark. Those who used to live there salvaged whatever they could from the wreckage.

JOAN GHRIST, Tornado Survivor: I have gotten to where I hate April and May because of the threat of storms.

GWEN IFILL: Joan and Clay Ghrist weren’t at home on Monday, but they came back to pick through the remains of their home and to begin planning their future.

CLAY GHRIST, Tornado Survivor: We will collect the insurance, pay off our note, rebuild something here, sell it, and buy a house down in San Antonio.

GWEN IFILL: Another Westmoor couple, Jim and Beverly Brenner, relived the terror of Monday’s giant twister.

JIM BRENNER, Tornado Survivor: There is nothing that can describe the sound of your house exploding with you in it.

GWEN IFILL: When the tornado hit, the 81-year-old Brenner took shelter in a closet with his wife. But he was sucked out by the vortex.

BEVERLY BRENNER, Tornado Survivor: I couldn’t find my husband. And I was — because I knew he wasn’t in the closet with me, and I was yelling his name over and over and over and screaming. And finally he answered me.

GWEN IFILL: The home was flattened. Jim Brenner ended up under the rooftop with only minor injuries.

JIM BRENNER: I was over in Japan when they — just after they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Believe it or not, Moore looks like Hiroshima did. I can’t even talk about it, just flat and open for over a mile in any direction. The funnel was a mile-and-a-half wide. Ooh, I can’t even talk about it anymore.

GWEN IFILL: For now, the Brenners are staying with a friend and receiving food supplies and help from the Oakcrest Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Pastor Ben Glover organized a food and water drive for the area.

PASTOR BEN GLOVER, Oakcrest Church of Christ: After the first day, kind of after the deer in the headlights, you begin to see the reality of the situation settle in. And as they struggle through that, they are beginning to realize this is the long haul. It’s not a sprint anymore. It’s a marathon.

And so part of what we try to provide is comfort, but also knowledge. What do you need to be doing on day two, day three, day four? And so because we have been through this before in ’99, we have a pretty good what steps they need to take.

GWEN IFILL: Not far away, Moore’s only hospital is in ruins, after taking a direct hit. The top floor was ripped right off the building.

DEREK THAYER, Tornado Survivor: This was my truck. It’s actually — it’s like my pride and joy.

GWEN IFILL: Physical therapy assistant Derek Thayer spotted the shiny hubcaps of his truck when he emerged from the wreckage of the medical center. He helped some of the patients get to safety.

DEREK THAYER: We just hunkered down, and soon as it came over you just knew it just from the pressure change in the room, and then it just became a little more chaotic just due to the people could tell it was going over, doors were being ripped off the doorjambs and things, and that’s when it became very real.

GWEN IFILL: The state medical examiner today released the names of some of the 24 killed. At least 10 were children, and seven died when the twister struck the Plaza Towers school.

The schools had no internal safe rooms, but Oklahoma’s director of emergency management says almost nothing could have withstood a direct hit from a tornado with winds over 200 miles an hour.

ALBERT ASHWOOD, Oklahoma Director of Emergency Management: This is the anomaly that flattens everything to the ground. So it’s a bit remiss to say that — that tornado precautions were not taken or facilities were not strong enough. Can they always be stronger? Absolutely. But I think everything was done that could be done at the time.

GWEN IFILL: Now, as attention turns to reconstruction, there’s new focus on building safety, including safe rooms in homes, concrete blocks in the floor with a sliding door.

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said today he plans to build one.

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS, Moore, Okla.: If you ask most people out there, they’re going to rebuild and they’re probably going to get a storm shelter.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, rescue crews were winding down their search of the wreckage. And White House officials announced President Obama plans to visit Moore on Sunday to survey the damage and meet with victims.