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Okla. Town Confronts Reality of Rebuilding After Stunningly Powerful Tornado

May 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A monster tornado nearly flattened the town of Moore, Okla. Jeffrey Brown gets reaction from Time magazine's Jay Newton-Small, Sgt. Jeremy Lewis of the Moore Police Department and Bob Henson from the National Center for Atmospheric Research about the devastation, the latest rescue efforts and the science behind the mighty storm.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Jay Newton-Small is in Moore for TIME magazine. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Jay Newton-Small, thanks so much for joining us.

Can you tell us, do you have a sense of where they are in terms of the search for survivors at this point?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, TIME: Sure.

I spoke with the local mayor here in Moore, and he said that they’re actually not expecting to find any more bodies. At least he hopes, fingers crossed, so. They’re not going to completely rule it out, but they do believe, given they have done two sweeps, and by nightfall, they will have done three sweeps with sniffer dogs, that they don’t think they are going to find any more people, that this will be — at least no more people alive — and this would be essentially just a recovery operation from here on in.

And that’s a good thing, in the sense that, you know, hopefully they will get a real sense of the numbers of missing people and they can rule out any more deaths.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have been watching some of these sweeps, I gather. Is it literally door to door or wreckage to wreckage? How are they doing it?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: It is literally door to door and wreckage to wreckage.

And you can see the X’s marked on all the different cars and all the different buildings. And they do them in color code, so one pass means a black X. Another two passes means a red X. And that way, they know that this place has been searched, they have looked in every possible corner, and there isn’t anyone inside, and they — and the teams can move on.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have been with these responder teams. You have been going into some of the neighborhoods.

Just give us a sense of what you have seen. What does it feel like and look like?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: You know, it’s — with tornadoes, the most amazing thing is just the hit-or-miss nature of it. And so you will have blocks where one whole side of the block, the houses are completely fine, and then on the other side of the block, they’re just decimated.

I mean, they’re literally — and this has been an unusually powerful tornado, in that it’s not just that they’re flattened and pancaked and rubble. I mean, it’s like licked clean. It’s like the only thing you see on the plot is sort of the shadow of where the house once was and it’s a bunch of brown grass that was once there, and they’re the only thing that delineates that the house was there, and then there’s debris everywhere else.

And so it’s really just — the power of this storm is stunning in this case and you see that with search-and-rescue teams. They really are looking under every plank of wood just in case somebody is hiding behind it. And you hear stories about a student actually in a school who was found underneath a chalkboard that was laying down.

So, it’s really, like, every nook and cranny, that’s what they’re searching.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are the people there telling you about their own either experiences of it coming or their own survival stories?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: I mean, and that’s also been amazing.

I spoke to one young man who saw it coming, ran into a 7-Eleven to warn people to take shelter. He left, drove off, was racing away from the tornado. All four people in that 7-Eleven died. He took shelter under a bridge. He managed to survive. They talk about the roaring of the air, how incredibly powerful it sounds, and you think that nothing is going to be left when you come out, and then, surprise, surprise, either your house is still there or, in fact, there really is nothing left.

And they do talk about just the debris that you see and the force of which the debris is embedded into cars, into stone walls, into concrete. It really just flings cars and smashes them like little toys. It’s really just stunning, the power of nature that you see. And I think a lot of people you see walking around kind of in — dazed, because they just are shocked by it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was wondering.

Is anybody able to think about what now, what next, what do they do?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: I mean, a lot of people this afternoon I saw for the first time really starting to clean up, take out brooms and start to sweep.

And it’s such a little thing to be able to clear your driveway, but it’s important to people. And, you know, when your house is a wreck, but your driveway is clean, somehow, it’s really — I spoke to one woman who was speaking her driveway of this house that had been totally ruined. And she was like, you know what? At least I know I won’t get a flat tire with my car, and it’s the beginning. It’s the first step.

And so that’s now what people are really looking to do, is the first steps that they are going to take to rebuilding this town.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you very briefly, Jay, does it look as though they have enough resources there in terms of the relief effort?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: The relief effort has actually been really impressive.

And, you know, they — the — the — every official that I spoke to, from the governor to the mayor, has said that FEMA has been really amazing in this case and has provided whatever is needed and cut through red tape. And you see that with the search teams out there.

There’s a combination of Homeland Security, FEMA, as well as local police and state police. And you see that also in terms of there’s water everywhere. There’s vans going around supplying first, you know, first-responders, as well as locals, with food, with water. Any kind of shelter that’s needed, they have been supplying.

So, it really has been a very good response so far. And that seems to be the unified response.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jay Newton-Small of TIME magazine, thanks so much.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Thank you.

And shortly after that interview, we spoke with Sgt. Jeremy Lewis of Moore Police Department.

Sgt. Lewis, thanks so much for joining us.

We have heard that you’re doing two and three sweeps of the area. Is there still some hope of finding people, or do you have a sense that most are accounted for at this point?

SGT. JEREMY LEWIS, Moore Police Department: Well, we have actually done one complete sweep. We’re in the process of our second sweep.

We actually are also still working on Plaza Towers Elementary School. We have large equipment there now, that we’re trying to move some of the larger debris out of the way. There’s still 20- to 30-foot pile high at the elementary school that they have got to the go through.

And to go from one end of the city to the other, it takes pretty much an entire day. So we’re about halfway through the second sweep. There is a possibility that we could find someone possibly still in a storm cellar or a safe room that’s just been covered up.

Last night, most of the search was done in the dark. Now with the light, and we also have a lot more heavy equipment, we’re more equipped at doing the search correctly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about what else is happening in the community today, in particular shelters, food, and aid. How is that going for people?

JEREMY LEWIS: We are — just in the past, we have had enormous support here in the city of Moore, and it’s showing again.

You know, there’s literally cases and cases of water being brought to the volunteers. I know at the different places we have for shelter, we have numerous things being dropped off for the victims of this storm. But it’s just an outpouring of support in all different ways, volunteer, money bringing things, just everything. We’re pretty much overwhelming with support that we have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me. This is your community. What did you see today as you went around?

JEREMY LEWIS: Well, it’s pretty hard to believe.

This is — I have grown up here my entire life. I have worked here for 13 years, went to high school here. To see the center of the city pretty much from border to border almost wiped clean is — I don’t know that it’s still set in for a lot of officers that are from the Moore area.

We have been so busy running here and there just trying to do our jobs. I think it will take a couple days to set in. But it’s — when you really stop is whenever it kind of gets to you. And it’s — it’s extremely upsetting just to see what people are going through. It’s devastating.

JEFFREY BROWN: And officials earlier today had said that the death toll — the death toll still could rise. Is that — is that still the thinking at this point?

JEREMY LEWIS: There’s a possibility just for the fact that the size of this disaster is so enormous.

The amount of debris that has piled up, it’s — it’s really hard to be 100 percent until you have the search-and-rescue dogs search nearly, you know, from one side of the city to the other. We have so many places that people could still be. It’s hard to say 100 percent that we have found everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sgt. Jeremy Lewis of the Moore Police Department, our condolences to your community. Good luck to you, and thanks so much for talking to us.

JEREMY LEWIS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us live now from Boulder, Colo., Bob Henson, a meteorologist for the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

So, even as the rescue continues, what can you tell us about the size and force of this tornado and what caused it to be so powerful?

BOB HENSON, National Center for Atmospheric Research: Well, it was an extremely powerful tornado, now rated at EF-5 on the enhanced Fujita scale.

That places it in the top one-tenth of one percent of all tornadoes. The U.S. usually gets about 1,200 or so tornadoes in a particular year, and usually there’s only about one on average that reaches this strength. In terms of what caused it to be so strong, there are a few days each year that have the general conditions that lead to strong tornadoes.

This includes very warm, moist, unstable air near the surface, colder air aloft, also wind shear, which is when the winds are blowing one direction below and a different direction aloft. And that imparts the air with a spin that can get sucked up into a thunderstorm.

And then that — finally, that rotation is concentrated in the tornado. And there’s some mystery about what makes that happen. So the conditions are there on a number of days, and it’s still a little bit difficult to say, for example, a day ahead of time exactly which days will produce an EF-5.

It was apparent within a couple of hours that the potential for a bad tornado was developing quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want to pursue that a little bit more. How well was this tracked ahead of time, and what can you tell today about how much warning and when people — people got the warning?

BOB HENSON: Well, actually, the immediate tornado was very well forecast.

Within about an hour of its formation, it was clear that severe thunderstorms were developing. About 10 or so minutes before the tornado touched down, there was a tornado warning issued, with the expectation it was going to touch down. It then moved into Moore about 10 minutes after touchdown.

So people of Moore had anywhere from maybe 10 or 15 to 20 minutes of the tornado’s arrival. It was also seen a few days out that there was a potential for severe weather on — yesterday. A product called Convective Outlooks are issued by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center.

And those are issued up to eight days in advance that outline in a kind of broad-brush way which parts of the country could see severe weather. So, you could see several days out the potential, and then in the immediate couple hours, you could see the conditions lining up for — specifically in the Moore-Oklahoma City area.

The tricky part is maybe six to 24 hours out. And my lab, NCAR, is actually part is part of a project right now called MPEX, which is specifically trying to improve predictions in that six-to-24-hour window.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the situation, the weather situation today in Oklahoma and elsewhere, because there were fears of continued — of more tornadoes?

BOB HENSON: Well, this is a good example of that quandary, because as recently as yesterday, it looked like there was the chance for more significant tornado action today.

It now — at least the last I looked — was looking more like kind of garden-variety thunderstorms, maybe some severe storms, but probably not the kind of tornadoes like we saw yesterday. So the more we can improve calling those characters of thunderstorms, say, a day or so out, that will be fantastic. But, certainly, in terms of the warnings that are issued an hour before and the warning system, it worked flawlessly, I would say, in the Moore area.

The word got to people. There’s still work to be done, I think, in how people interpret warnings and especially having a place to go. I mean, many places in Oklahoma don’t have basements, partially because of the soil type. And so people don’t necessarily have a place to take shelter, even if they know that a violent tornado is on the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bob Henson, thank you so much.

BOB HENSON: You’re welcome, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: Online, you can watch our report from 1999, when another tornado devastated the town of Moore.