As good news goes, this would have to do: First thing Tuesday, the medical examiner in Moore, Okla., announced that the death toll had gone down overnight.
At day’s end Monday, the number killed by a massive tornado was reported to be at least 51, with more expected as rescue workers dug through the wreckage. That was more than twice the number later confirmed dead. A spokeswoman for the examiner’s office blamed it on “chaos.”
Chaos indeed. The twister, more than a mile wide, swept east across town from west to east, hugging the ground for 40 minutes. The National Weather Service on Tuesday upgraded the tornado to an EF5 rating, meaning it had winds greater than 200 mph for at least part of that time.
There were reports of debris landing in Tulsa, Okla., 100 miles away, and Branson, Mo., 250 miles away.
Images of the aftermath: Entire neighborhoods leveled. Piles of overturned cars, like something you’d see on the floor of a 5-year-old’s bedroom. A roof lifted intact from one house and deposited in the front yard of another. A hospital missing its second floor. A bowling alley flattened. Two elementary schools, a little more than a mile apart, reduced to rubble and splinters.
At Briarwood Elementary, 70 youngsters huddled in the girls bathroom as the walls crumbled around them. All survived. At Plaza Towers Elementary, children sought shelter in the basement, where seven of them drowned.
Heartbreak and devastation are all too familiar to Moore. The town is situated near the center of “Tornado Alley,” which stretches roughly from Texas to South Dakota, between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians.
The region is vulnerable to tornadoes because of frequent collisions of warm, dry air from the Southwest; cool, dry air from the Rockies; and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.
But twisters seem almost magnetically drawn to Moore. In 1999, an EF5 tornado barreled through at 302 mph, the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth’s surface, according to the National Weather Service. That one killed 36 people.
In between, the town was rocked by smaller twisters in 2003 and 2010.
Moore can’t even count on the law of averages for protection: Only 0.1 percent of tornadoes are rated EF5.
So kids there get used to tornado drills. Adults get used to rebuilding. Because there is no place on Earth that is safe from Mother Nature, and if there was, we still wouldn’t be safe from manmade disasters. Just ask the people who lived near the West, Texas, fertilizer plant or the residents of Boston.
On Tuesday, as rescue workers continued to look for the missing and relief efforts got underway from near and far, the residents of Moore talked about resilience, about having been through all of this before.
They shared stories of heroic teachers, shielding children with their bodies; of white-knuckle survival, cowering in bathtubs and closets; of dramatic rescues, including one woman who phoned for help from beneath a pile of aluminum and lumber. A sense of weary familiarity pervaded it all. But those stories were laced with hope.
Senior citizen Barbara Garcia’s happy reunion with her miniature schnauzer provided an uplifting break from the otherwise grim narrative, but it didn’t start out that way. Standing in front of the scrap heap that used to be her home, she told a CBS reporter about the terrifying minutes she spent in her bathroom, clutching the dog on her lap as she “felt the stool come up out of the floor.” When the wind stopped flinging things about, she found herself atop a pile of debris, staring at a Presto cooker. The dog, she said, gesturing with resignation, “is in there somewhere.”
Life would go on, she was saying, seconds before the schnauzer’s nose poked out of the wreckage. “This is life in the big city.”