MOORE, OKLAHOMA – Relief workers and cleanup crews defied thunderstorms Thursday as families and friends gathered for the funeral of one of the Oklahoma tornado’s youngest victims.
Heavy rain and lightning at dawn threatened to upset Moore’s long trail back to normality, with police at one point closing flash-flooded streets in the residential city of 56,000 that is struggling to get back on its feet.
Students from a school destroyed by the tornado reunited with their teachers Thursday and collected whatever could be salvaged from the ruins. Some children carried thank you cards. A 7-year-old was eager to see her favorite gym teacher and for a chance to say goodbye for the school year.
It was one of many difficult goodbyes for the city. Family and friends attended the funeral of Antonia Candelaria, 9, who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School — the first internment since Monday’s storm. In an Oklahoma City funeral home, about 250 family and friends together mourned the death of Candelaria, one of the seven children killed when the roof collapsed at the school.
Students who survived the storm’s onslaught at the school and those whose parents had pulled them out of class just before it hit gathered with their teachers at another Moore school that wasn’t damaged.
Authorities kept journalists at a distance, but Cheryle Dixon talked to a reporter about how hard it was for her granddaughter, Crisily Dixon. “A lot of tears, a lot of worry about her gym teacher, a lot of worry about a lot of the teachers that she knew, so she just can’t believe it,” Dixon said.
The girl’s father had picked her up an hour before the tornado struck when he learned of the severity of the approaching storm — a top of the scale EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale that was on the ground for 40 minutes, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The Fujita scale gauges a tornado’s strength based on the damage it causes.
The tornado, one of the most powerful in recent years, killed 24 people, injured 377, damaged or destroyed 1,200 homes and affected an estimated 33,000 people in Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb, officials said in their latest update. Around 12,000 homes were damaged and destroyed across a broader area covering Oklahoma City and Moore.
Initial damages have been estimated at around $2 billion.
“My biggest concern is not necessarily for the structure, but for people’s contents,” general contractor Lane Yeager, scrambling to patch the roof of a stricken home, said during a break in the thunderstorms.
“They just survived the tornado. Now they’re going to have more problems (with rain damage). If we can get the lightning to let up for a little while, we’re going to try to cover that up so they don’t have further damage,” he said.
“It’s wet and it’s cold,” said Andy Loyd, helping to repair his daughter’s house. “But it kind of helps us to find where the holes are in the roof. It’s going to get dry (later) and we’ll get it secured and wait for the insurance companies to come in — and then we’ll rebuild.”
By midafternoon, the skies had brightened, enabling utility workers to resume fixing downed power lines. Volunteers from the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other charities fanned out with food, water and tools. Insurance claims adjusters tallied up losses.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Moore on Sunday to comfort survivors and take stock of the destruction and cleanup. The tight-knit community suffered a similarly powerful tornado in 1999 that killed 41 and another in 2003.
“We’re not only at the stage of recovery and getting our community back together. We’re also at the stage of healing for our citizens,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in announcing a public memorial service for late Sunday.
The United States experiences three out of four tornadoes in the world, but the one that hit Monday was unusually powerful when it touched down with little advance notice, cutting a 27-km swath of destruction. It followed roughly the same track as the 1999 twister, yet very few homes in Oklahoma — and neither of the stricken schools — had purpose-built storm shelters.
Vendors of such underground shelters for private residences say demand has surged since the latest tornado, but Fallin was noncommittal on whether government should help fund such facilities, saying only, “It think it’s important for Oklahoma to talk about that.”
Oklahoma state legislators — otherwise bitterly divided over such issues as abortion — came together to draw $45 million from the state’s “rainy day” emergency fund to help tornado victims.