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Okla. tornado damages could hit $2 billion

8:34 PM, May 22, 2013   |    comments
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MOORE, Okla. - As search and rescue operations wind down and this battered, exhausted city mourns its dead, attention is turning to a long, costly rebuilding effort.

Up to 13,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Monday's tornado that may have caused up $2 billion in damages, nearly double earlier estimates.

The official death toll remains at 24, with 237 injured. The injuries include 148 victims with cuts, 85 struck by debris and four hit by vehicles or other large objects, according to the
Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Six adults remain unaccounted, said Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood. It's possible they could still be found in the rubble, Ashwood said.

Oklahoma Insurance Department spokeswoman Calley Herth says the $2 billion damage estimate is based on assessments of a 17-mile long disaster zone created by the tornado, which was on the ground for 40 minutes.

The White House said President Obama will visit Oklahoma on Sunday. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, already here, said efforts are now focused on debris removal. Federal funds will cover 85% of those costs for the first 30 days, Napolitano said.

She said residents and businesses should apply for federal aid as they scramble to get back on their feet.

"At some point the cameras will leave," Napolitano said. "But on behalf of President Obama, on behalf of FEMA, we will be here to stay."

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said he will introduce an ordinance in the City Council requiring new homes to include reinforced safe rooms where residents can take shelter when a storm is coming. He said he is confident he'll get the four votes needed on the six-member council.

Lewis spoke as residents began returning to the splintered remains of their homes, a massive debris field left behind by the tornado.

"We're just waiting on the insurance to show up," said Katrina Ellerd, 46, standing in front of a pile of wood planks, roof tiles and sheet rock that was once her 3-bedroom home.

The house is located off Telephone Road, about a mile south from where a 1999 tornado hit but square in the path of Monday's storm, she said.

"We've seen them plenty," Ellerd said of the deadly tornadoes that frequent the region. "But you never think it could do this."

Legions of volunteers endured heavy traffic snarls and roadblocks to descend on the impacted area and help residents. Lindy Mauldin, 21, came from Oklahoma City to help a friend sift through her ruined home.

"They'll do the same for me," she said.

As her husband and son climbed on the debris pile looking for belongings, Ellerd said she was just happy no one in her family was hurt.

"As bad as this is, we made out far better than a lot of other people," she said.

The state medical examiner's office, which released the names of 16 fatalities, said 10 of the the 24 victims were children. Most attended Plaza Towers Elementary School, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms. Plaza Towers did not have a reinforced storm shelter or safe room, said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Two victims were infants, 4-month-old Case Futrell and 7-month-old Sydnee Vargyas. Both died from head injuries. The eight other children ranged from 4 years to 9 years old. Six suffocated, two died from massive injuries.

Plaza Towers student Ja'Nae Hornsby, 9, attended Mount Triumph Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

"She was an awesome child, awesome student in school, the kind of child that made you happy to be around,'' said Pastor James Dorn. "She wasn't troublesome. Just a super kid that always had a smile on her face.''

Dorn said the girl's parents rushed to the school when the twister hit and were unable to find their daughter. They went to shelters and called hospitals hoping to find her. "Then (Tuesday) morning they were informed by the medical examiner that Ja'Nae was one of the children that lost her life,'' Dorn said, adding that the church was establishing a memorial fund in her honor.

Fire Chief Gary Bird has said he is confident there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was a top-of-the-scale EF5 twister with winds of at least 200 mph. It was the first EF5 tornado of 2013.

The city and state are ready to move forward.

"It's been a very trying couple of days for the state of Oklahoma," Gov. Mary Fallin said. "We will get through this. We will overcome. We will rebuild and we will regain our strength."

Rep. Mark McBride, who represents Moore in the state Legislature, agreed. He said he had gone through most of the disaster zone -- and he was stunned by the devastation. But rebuilding will take place, he said.

"We have before. We're tough folks," McBride said. "It'll bounce back. We always build it back."

Contributing: Yamiche Alcindor, Dan Vergano, William M. Welch; Associated Press

Rick Jervis, Donna Leinwand Leger, John Bacon and Gary Strauss , USA TODAY

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