Rubble, ruin on the Plains

Survivors take stock after monster twisters roar across Okla., Kan.

Death toll: 43, likely to rise

May 05, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Under clear skies, tens of thousands of residents across Oklahoma and Kansas began grappling yesterday with the aftermath of a series of monster tornadoes that killed at least 43 people, injured more than 500, destroyed more than 1,500 buildings and left behind mile after mile of twisted metal, denuded trees, crumpled cars and collapsed buildings.

Standing in the anonymous rubble of their communities, they stared, shook their heads and joked ruefully, hoping to find some shard of their former lives that had escaped the devastation.

A fierce line of storms roared across Oklahoma and southern Kansas late Monday, unleashing an unknown number of twisters including one particularly brutal one that authorities said was at times as wide as a mile.

That tornado -- which officials said would likely be classified as an F4, or devastating tornado -- gouged the southern edge of the Oklahoma City area. It wiped more than 200 homes over 8 acres in the suburb of Moore off their foundations like ice scraped off a windshield.

Officials said they expected the death toll to rise.

By late yesterday, officials had not determined how widespread the damage was and how extensive the injuries, though at least 1,500 buildings -- homes and businesses -- appeared to have been damaged or destroyed in Oklahoma. At least 200 buildings were hit in southern Kansas.

The dead came from across central Oklahoma, from Oklahoma City, the suburbs of Moore, Midwest City, Del City and Norman. Eleven of the dead came from one town, Bridge Creek, about 30 miles southwest of the capital, near where the largest tornado hit.

In addition, five people were killed by a separate tornado that hit Haysville, Kan., a town of 8,000 south of Wichita.

News of damage was straggling in from small towns and rural areas across the region. In Oklahoma City, 750 National Guard troops helped local officials and rescue dogs search for those who might be trapped.

Many were reminded of the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in April 1995 that left 168 dead.

"This is like eight or nine Murrah buildings scattered around the city," said Rep. J. C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican. "I've seen everything from a mother in a hospital not knowing where her two sons are to a family holding a wicker basket saying, `This is all we have to start over with.' "

President Clinton declared federal disaster areas in 11 counties in Oklahoma and one county in Kansas.

"The people of Oklahoma City, in particular, have suffered too much devastation in recent years and they have been hit very, very hard by this," Clinton said.

Tornadoes often stay on the ground for very short periods of time, sometimes rising into the sky and then dropping down again, bouncing along the countryside.

But the largest of Monday's twisters, the one that ravaged south of Oklahoma City, was reportedly on the ground for four hours. Paul G. Knight, a meteorologist with the Pennsylvania State University Weather Communications Group, said it was "extraordinary" but tornadoes that stay on the ground for an hour or two develop at least once a year.

"Most of the time, it goes through Farmer Joe's field," he said, so the impact is largely unappreciated. Longer-lived tornadoes than Monday's have been reported. The record, he said, is believed to be a 1925 twister that was on the ground for seven hours, wiping out several towns in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

Digging out begins

By yesterday afternoon, bulldozers had begun to push into the most devastated neighborhoods, helicopters moved overhead and the intermittent sound of chain saws could be heard through the roar of the wind.

In the hardest hit areas, most of the houses had been stripped of walls and roofing, and not a leaf remained on the trees, many of which were strewn with bits of metal and wood like gruesome ornaments. At one home, shirts flapped from their hangers in a closet that had lost its walls, and curtains waved like pennants through yawning, glassless windows.

Long sheets of metal, apparently roofing material, hung from the few remaining power lines.

Residents being allowed into many of the hard-hit areas, were asked to show photo identification. A 6: 30 p.m. curfew was put in place. In areas where the structures appeared most precarious, residents were still being kept out yesterday afternoon.

Kathi R. Ferguson, 38, collapsed against her mother as she looked at the wreckage of her Moore home. "I spent most of my life in that house," she said through sobs. Ferguson had rushed from her home in Tulsa to find her parents and see what had become of the brick house where she had lived for 30 years.

`It blew away'

"It didn't collapse, it blew away," said her father, Clifford L. Dodson, 73, a retired FAA technician.

One of Dodson's sons-in-law, Brent K. Mackay, 34, tried to clear rubble from what had been the front door. Authorities had not allowed him to go to his own home nearby, which was also destroyed.

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