Oklahoma tornado toll at 24 dead, 377 hurt as recovery speeds up
MOORE, Okla. -- As this devastated city buried the first victim of this week’s tornado, officials announced that the human toll appeared to be final at 24 dead and 377 injured.
Led by Gov. Mary Fallin, state and local officials said at a news conference that there had been tremendous progress in dealing with removing debris and making repairs since the tornado tore through this Oklahoma City suburb on Monday. But even as fierce rain initially hampered some recovery efforts Thursday, there were some bright spots as the city opened up newly cleared roads, allowing residents and cleanup specialists more access to the stricken zones.
The brightest development, however, seemed to be that the casualty list had stabilized, with all 24 dead identified and their relatives contacted, Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner’s office said at an afternoon news conference.
“We pray the numbers will hold steady and won’t go up,” Fallin said at the news conference.
The governor also formally announced a memorial service to be held Sunday, the same day that President Obama is scheduled to tour the devastation.
“We are in a stage of healing,” Fallin said. The service, to be held in Moore, will be open to all communities in the region.
“It will be a time to come together in prayer and thankfulness,” she said.
The tornado swept through the city carrying winds in excess of 200 miles per hour as it carved a 17-mile scar through the region. It flattened a local school, where seven children were killed, destroyed a hospital and damaged or leveled as many as 13,000 homes, according to officials.
The cost of the damage has been pegged by the state at more than $2 billion, making the storm the most expensive in Oklahoma history. At least four tornadoes have torn through the area since 1998 and the 1999 one was the deadliest with more than 40 people killed.
“We will rebuild, we will reopen and we will have school in August,” Susan Pierce, the school superintendent, said at the news conference, echoing the determined promises of other officials in noting a growing sense of community as neighbors again come together to overcome a natural disaster.
“I have never been more proud to be a member of this community,” said Pierce, who said she has lived in Moore since the 1960s. “Our focus is on recovery.”
Pierce noted that the first funeral for one of the seven children killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School was held on Thursday. Antonia Candelaria, 9, was buried as relatives and friends huddled under umbrellas in the driving rain, according to media reports.
The family distributed a photo of the smiling child wearing a sun hat.
Antonia, known as Tonie, according to her obituary, and her best friend, Emily Conatzer, were fast friends but did not survive the tornado’s fierceness. They were “inseparable, even in their last moments, they held on to one another and followed each other into Heaven and they will never be alone,” according to the obituary.
Of the 10 children who died in the storm, two were infants. The youngest to die was Case Futrell, 4 months old.
Megan Futrell, 29, died as she desperately tried to reach shelter at a convenience store. She was trying to protect her 4-month-old son, Pastor D.A. Bennett of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, said Thursday.
“I want people to remember this woman for the love she had for her child,” Bennett said.
Futrell, a teacher at Highland West Junior High School in Moore, was at work when she heard of the tornado heading toward the town. She rushed to pick up her son, Case, from a day-care center, Bennett said.
They headed for a 7-Eleven store to seek shelter but didn’t make it. Officials found her clutching Case, both dead from blunt force trauma to the head.
“I think that this was a mother who wanted to do everything possible to protect her child,” Bennett said. “Looking at it now, it was hard to protect anyone on that day.”
Officials have praised the federal response and again urged residents to sign up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 2,200 people have already done so, officials said.
The state has also moved on its own, Fallin said, shifting $45 million from its rainy-day fund to help defray costs from dealing with the disaster. Several state legislators have also established a nonprofit fund, fueled by corporate donations, to help schools, including for the construction of storm shelters.
State Rep. Mark McBride told reporters that Apache Corp., an oil and gas exploration company, had donated $500,000 to launch the fund. That money is specifically for schools in Moore but the organization will benefit schools statewide.
The question of storm shelters, particularly in schools, has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the tornado. There was no shelter at Plaza Towers or another school, Briarwood Elementary, that was also damaged.
Fallin said she knows of 100 schools in the state that have some sort of shelter, but didn’t know how many had none at all. FEMA has spent $57 million to help build public and private safe rooms in Oklahoma, an agency official said.
Fallin stopped short of saying she’d support legislation that would mandate all schools in the state to have a safe room. Instead, she said, officials are working on creating some sort of statewide register of safe rooms in communities so people could contact their local city officials to find shelter during a storm.
In response to a reporter’s question, Fallin said she has directed her Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez to help reach out to the Latino community.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, a Democrat who represents Oklahoma City, chimed in and said it’s unclear whether FEMA would be able to help people who are in the country illegally.
“I guess the message is if you need help, you’ll get it, regardless,” he said.
Carcamo reported from Moore, Okla., and Muskal from Los Angeles.
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