By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
MOORE — A massive F4 tornado with winds estimated at 200 mph spun through this city Monday afternoon, killing approximately 91 persons and taking a path eerily close to the May 3, 1999, storm that killed 43.
The tornado left a debris field miles wide and tens of miles long. Officials say more than 120 were injured and expect the death toll to climb as more victims are found.
The official death toll was 51 until early Tuesday morning, when the state medical examiner’s office, through spokesperson Amy Elliott, confirmed to The Transcript that it had been told to expect “approximately 40 more” victims. At least 20 of the victims are believed to be children.
President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster in Oklahoma. He has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. National Guard members were deployed to assist with rescue operations.
The storm formed southwest of the metro area and moved parallel to I-44 before turning east through Moore and parts of southwest Oklahoma City before eventually lifting near Lake Stanley Draper.
At a press conference outside Moore City Hall Monday evening, Gov. Mary Fallin and many Moore and Oklahoma City municipal officials made it very clear that search and rescue operations were ongoing and would be going on throughout Monday night, into this morning and very possibly beyond.
Fallin lamented it was not a new experience for the Moore community. The previous benchmark for tornadic destruction in the area occurred May 3, 1999, when an F5 tornado bore a very similar path through town.
“It’s just hard to believe something like this could happen again to Moore,” Fallin said. “Our prayers and thoughts are with the Oklahoma families that have been hit hard by this terrible storm.”
Still, the comparison between May 3, 1999, and Monday may only be geographically apt. Fourteen years ago, 43 were killed and damaged totaled more than $1 billion.
Monday’s tornado has already claimed a greater human toll and the destruction is breathtaking and almost indescribable. Monday’s tornado was the fourth to hit Moore since 1998. The city also was hit in 2003.
By early Monday evening, the parking lot directly north of the northern edge of the Warren Theater on I-35 was being used as a triage space for tornado victims. In that space, ambulances were lined up like cabs at an airport; few hundred yards north, Moore Medical Center, a full service hospital and emergency room, had been completely gutted; while, across the street to the west, a neighborhood had been flattened. Meanwhile, across Interstate 35, between the highway and South Broadway Street, a few blocks south of Main Street, another neighborhood was destroyed.
“We’ll bring every resource out that we can. We’ve had offers from other governors across the nation,” Fallin said. “I’ve even had a phone call from President Obama, who sends his prayers to the state and also offered to do anything he can to speed up our federal assistance and (cut through) type of red tape.”
Though the medical examiner’s office has confirmed 51 dead, the only precise site in which deaths have been confirmed is Plaza Towers Elementary School, located until Monday at 852 SW 11th St. in Moore.
Kelly Law, a teachers assistant at Plaza Towers, helped lead a group of children to safety, eventually finding sanctuary at the Warren Theater.
She said many parents were able to pick their children up from the school prior to the tornado’s arrival, “and I hope and pray that all of them got home.”
In the school’s main building, teachers and students gathered in the main hallway and in bathrooms that were centrally located in the school.
“The bathrooms were left and the hallway. We were safe,” she said. “All of the outside rooms, completely demolished. All of our cars were tossed all over.”
Law said she knew of nobody who had lost their life, but was concerned about a third grade class that was located in an auxiliary building behind the main part of the school.
“Last I knew, they were searching for people,” she said. “The police and everybody were going back there and they started going back there with dogs. The whole neighborhood was gone.”
The tornado also destroyed Briarwood Elementary School, 14901 S. Hudson, though the human cost there, if any, was unknown late Monday night.
“We are still doing searches through the schools, through the houses,” said Jerry Stillings, Moore police chief. “Primary and secondary searches at this time.”
Follow me @clayhorning