MOORE, Okla. (AP) – The tornado that struck an Oklahoma City suburb this week may have created $2 billion or more in damage as it tore through as many as 13,000 homes, multiple schools and a hospital, officials said Wednesday as they gave the first detailed account of the devastation.
At the same time, authorities released the identities of some of the 24 people, including 10 children, who perished. While anguish over the deaths was palpable as residents began picking up their shattered neighborhoods, many remained stunned that the twister didn’t take a higher human toll during its 17 miles and 40 minutes on the ground.
The physical destruction was staggering.
“The tornado that we’re talking about is the 1 or 2 percent tornado,” Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said of the twister, which measured a top-of-the-scale EF5 with winds of at least 200 mph. “This is the anomaly that flattens everything to the ground.”
As response teams transitioned into cleanup and recovery, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who sent police and fire crews from his city to assist the effort, said an early assessment estimated damage costs at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
The Oklahoma Insurance Department, meanwhile, said visual assessments of the extensive damage zone suggest the cost could be greater than the $2 billion from the 2011 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., and killed nearly seven times as many people.
Though there was little more than 10 minutes warning that a tornado was on the ground Monday and headed for Moore, many in the area are accustomed to severe storms. The community of 56,000 people has been hit by four tornados since 1998, and residents already were on alert after weekend storms and days of warnings. Because the tornado hit in the afternoon, many others were away from the neighborhoods and out of harm’s way at work.
Looking over the broken brick, smashed wood and scattered appliances that is all that remains of the home where Dawn Duffy-Relf’s aunt lived with her two daughters, Duffy-Relf and her husband marveled at the devastation – and the survival rate.
Duffy-Relf credited central Oklahoma residents’ instincts and habits: they watch the weather reports, they look at the sky, they know what they can and can’t outrun.
“We know where we live,” she said as she tried to salvage as much from the home as possible before her aunt returned from a vacation to Mexico.
Her husband, Paul Duffy-Relf, also noted the rise of social media and cellphone use since the last massive storm smashed the town more than a decade ago. He said people posted on Facebook and Twitter ahead of Monday’s storm, telling others where the tornado was and when to flee. And some never left their cellphones, staying on the line with loved ones as long as they could, and working to quickly reconnect with those who needed help afterward.
“People are still looking for their wallets, but they have their cellphones,” he said.
Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said long-range forecasting models also have dramatically improved and are able to provide insight even a week before a storm strikes.
Brooks said people in the storm’s direct path had time to pick out their safe place – even if it was their home’s bathtub – when there was first word of a massive tornado bearing down on them.
“If you take appropriate action, you go to your safe place, you can dramatically increase the probability you’ll survive,” he said.
To Brooks, the Joplin tornado was the oddity in terms of lives lost. That tornado struck on a Sunday evening two years ago this week.
“It’s a number that I really don’t understand what led to that,” he said. “It could be the timing, 5:30 on a Sunday night, or bad luck. That was the outlier.”
While estimating that between 12,000 and 13,000 homes were affected by Monday’s tornado, emergency officials said they were unable to estimate the number of people left homeless, in part because many had been taken in by relatives and only a couple dozen stayed overnight at Red Cross shelters.
President Barack Obama plans to view the destruction firsthand on Sunday. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, meanwhile, visited Wednesday and again pledged the federal government’s ongoing support. She urged people to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to learn about aid for which they may qualify.
“We know that people are really hurting,” she said. “There’s a lot of recovery yet to do. ... We will be here to stay until this recovery is complete. You have our commitment on that.”
Associated Press writers Tim Talley in Moore, Ken A. Miller in Oklahoma City and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa contributed to this report.