By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
MOORE — Three weeks after a deadly tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, cleanup is ahead of schedule but it could take up to two years before the community is able to completely rebuild, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said Wednesday.
Lewis and other local, state and federal officials joined Gov. Mary Fallin for a walking tour of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. Fallin promised continued state support as the city rebuilds from the May 20 tornado that killed 24 people and injured more than 300.
“We have not forgotten,” Fallin said outside the razed remains of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were crushed when the tornado slammed into the school. “There is still a tremendous need in these communities, and we will be there until the job is finished.”
Fallin walked through the neighborhood around the school, where dozens of homes were reduced to piles of rubble. Houses on the edges of the twister’s path had broken or boarded-up windows, and many were covered with giant blue tarps. Huge piles of debris and mangled vehicles stood in piles along the side of the road, and workers with a front-end loader scooped giant piles of rubble into the backs of waiting dump trucks.
While she walked through the neighborhood, resident Kay Bailey walked up to the governor and gave her a hug.
“You hang in there,” Fallin told the woman. “Know there’s a lot of people here to help you.”
Bailey, who was sheltering in an interior closet with her dog when the tornado destroyed her home, said she is living with a friend in south Oklahoma City.
“I ended up with a boat in my house,” she said. “I’m staying in Oklahoma ... but I won’t be rebuilding.”
Lewis said the most pressing challenge is getting rubble and other wreckage from the storm removed so that people who decide to rebuild can move forward. So far, more than 40,000 tons of debris have been moved, he said.
For about another week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the city for 85 percent of the cost of debris removal. After 30 days, that amount is reduced to 80 percent, and after 60 days it will be reduced to the traditional 75 percent match.
The new sliding scale was implemented after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Eastern Seaboard to expedite debris removal and rebuilding, said Sandy Coachman, a coordinating officer for FEMA.
“It looks like it’s working pretty well,” Coachman said. “Debris is really about housing.”
Plaza Towers and another school, Briarwood Elementary, both have been demolished after taking direct hits from the tornado, and school officials in Moore are working on a plan to rebuild. Twenty-one schools in the district, including its administration building, were damaged in the tornado and a separate storm on May 31 that passed through the area, said district spokeswoman Pam Westbrook.
A chain-link fence surrounding the Plaza Towers site has been converted into a makeshift memorial, covered with T-shirts, stuffed animals and notes of encouragements from around the country.
On the grounds of the school, seven wooden crosses, each with a small lantern on top, have been erected in honor of the children who died there.