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Killer Storms in Oklahoma and Kansas: Oklahoma Lieutenant Gov. Mary Fallin

May 4, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The tornado tragedies in Oklahoma. We get an update from Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin. I spoke with her a few moments ago from Moore, Oklahoma, just outside Oklahoma City.

JIM LEHRER: Lieutenant Governor Fallin, welcome.

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN, (R) Oklahoma: Good afternoon, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: We just — first just an overview, what is the latest death toll there in Oklahoma from the tornadoes?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: The latest death toll is 40 people statewide.

JIM LEHRER: Forty people confirmed dead. What about injured?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: We have 541 people who have been admitted to hospitals throughout the Oklahoma City vicinity.

JIM LEHRER: And how many are still missing?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, we haven’t got a count yet. There are neighbors going through and families going through, trying to determine where their relatives or friends may be or their neighbors may be. And there are different associations that are trying to keep lists of people who might be missing. We’re trying to just connect everybody. There’s so much confusion here with all the houses that have been demolished, and there’s so many people trying to get to their neighborhoods and there are a lot of people who fled to shelters last night during the storm. So we’re trying to get a good count.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Is there a feeling that there are many people still unaccounted for?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: There is a feeling that there could be some people unaccounted for, but the fire marshal and the police chief have both stated that they’ve been through the neighborhood at least two times. They’re getting ready to make a third sweep.

JIM LEHRER: I see. And what are we looking at there behind us there, behind you there?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, behind me is one of the neighborhoods that was hit the hardest. And, as you can see, it looks just like somebody took, like, a bomb and just dropped it and everything exploded everywhere. There’s debris in the trees, the power lines are all down behind me. The clothes are strewn throughout the land, the trees have just broken off from the tops, the power lines — power poles are broken. In fact, somebody was telling me a story a minute ago, there was an 83-, 84-year-old couple who was sitting in the bathroom in one of these houses on two stools and when the tornado went through they just went and sat back on the front porch and looked at all the damage.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my goodness, wow. Where were you when this thing hit last night?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, I was at my home in Northwest Oklahoma City. It came within around ten miles of my house. But the sirens did go off. And I took my children to a church and went down into a basement. I’ll tell you something interesting. Being around ten miles away from this disaster area, I could smell the gas fumes clear at my home.

JIM LEHRER: Could you see the twisters themselves?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: I could not see the twisters but there was a tremendous lightning storm and a lot of wind and some rain in areas of Oklahoma City.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of warning did the folks have?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: We had a really good warning system last night. All the news stations were on live on TV and actually had a map with the different sections of Oklahoma City and more and Dell City and the surrounding areas, Chicashee, that were hit, and they would tell the track of the tornadoes as they were moving – or tornadoes, I should say. There were so many. They were telling exactly where they were going to be and where the path would be and the timing of them. So, we had a lot of advanced warning. And I think it really saved a lot of lives because of our news service.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, what was the cause of death in most of these cases?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: The cause of death?


LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: I think it was just injuries from the homes being flattened. And there were a lot of cars that were on the highway at that time of night also, because it hit around the rush-hour traffic time. And there were cars that that were just blown off the highway. There were a lot of people who went up under the bridges and were hiding. In fact, I heard one story about people who were up under the bridge — they just had mud covering their face.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What is the major need there now?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: I think the major need is going to be obviously the rebuilding, and with rebuilding you’re going to need money to rebuild. The FEMA director is here, James Witt. And he said that insurance would probably cover about around 75 percent maybe at the most of the cost of all the damages, so there’s going to be a need for money for these people to restore their lives, their homes, to get their clothes back and their furniture and all the things they’ve lost; they’ve lost everything here.

JIM LEHRER: What was it — you’ve talked to many of the people who were right in the middle of this. What was it like being in the middle of one of these tornadoes?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: I think they were really frightened. They heard the wind, they could see the trees blowing, the debris blowing. In fact, on our local news last night, they were actually showing the tornado hitting in different areas and you could just see the debris flying, circling through the air. I think they were just really frightened. The majority of them were smart enough by following the news to know where to go in their homes, to get into a bathroom, a corridor, to get down with blankets or heavy coats, whatever might protect them. I have heard a lot about injuries from debris that flew around and hit people and cut people.

JIM LEHRER: But they were given very specific instructions as to what to do to avoid — and what was the basic thing, to get down and get inside something low?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, I was watching the news myself to see what I needed to do, but basically they told them to get into a corridor in the center of the house, or get into a rest room, to get a flashlight, a candle, to get a radio with batteries, put on a heavy coat, to get blankets, to get pillows and surround yourself. And if you’re in a car, they said, get out of your car and go down into a ditch. Boy, were they right on that. They showed one area of the highway last night on the news and I’ve seen some areas along the roads here where people fled from their cars and their cars were just twisted like little pieces of metal and just thrown head over heels on each other.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. You know, they say that this is the strongest tornado that anybody has ever heard of. Was that known when this came? Was the warning that strong to say, hey, wait a minute, this is not just a routine tornado, this is one that is really going to blow some people away?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, the tornado had been on the ground to at least an hour for different area of the states. At some points it was half an mile to a mile wide, which is absolutely huge. And I thought that it was around an F-4, which is the second from the highest level; you can get F-5’s, the highest, and on F-5’s you get wind miles per hours around 250 miles per hour. So I said, it could have been an F-5 even.

JIM LEHRER: 250 miles an hour?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: 250 miles an hour. In fact, just right across the street from me, I’m looking at a church and it’s a brick church and there’s a piece of plywood, a board, that was just rammed through the brick of the church. That’s how strong the wind was through here.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the spirit of the folks like?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Oh, the spirit’s good. It’s incredible how all these people can come together and work and help each other. There’s been so many people coming by today offering food, clothes, baby formula. I heard a man on the radio a minute ago telling that he had two rent houses and that he would be happy to give it to anybody that needed a place to stay tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Well, after the terrible bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City a few years ago, are you all in Oklahoma saying my goodness, why us again?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: It does seem like it’s been awful soon to have a disaster. And I want to tell you something frankly; I was in office during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building and this tragedy is just as big. Of course, we haven’t had as many deaths, but this tragedy is huge for Oklahoma. I heard this tornado swept a mile area through Oklahoma County, it’s about 12 miles long, and there’s been a thousand houses that have been damaged and that’s just in the Oklahoma City, Moore Dell City, metroplex area but we also have many rural towns that were hit heavy last night. Down in Chicashee Oklahoma, which is about an hour from here, it was totally demolished, their airport, hit a hospital. There are some other little rural towns that had a lot of damage.

JIM LEHRER: Some little communities were just completely destroyed, were they not?

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: That’s right. And there have been some deaths in some of the other rural communities.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Well, look, Lieutenant Governor Fallin, my best to you and thank you for being with us.

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: Well, thank you and we sure appreciate the nation’s support, and the way they pulled together to help us once again in a time of tragedy.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you very much.

LT. GOV. MARY FALLIN: You’re welcome.