Financial, emotional tolls mount as Oklahoma tornado recovery effort begins

Jason Sickles
The Lookout

MOORE, Okla.—Atop a pile of rubble that had been his home, Tim Wardwell choked back tears, grateful for the strangers who prayed with him to give thanks that he wasn’t among the 24 tornado fatalities.

“I don’t know how I’m here, dude,” Wardwell told Yahoo News.

Wardwell and his wife, Kelsey, had biked back to the house—which had collapsed on him and their two dachshunds—to survey the damage. They managed to recover their family birth certificates, a handful of photos and a few keepsakes for their children.

“The bear still squeaks,” said Kelsey, pointing to a tattered toy.

Nearly 13,000 homes are believed to have been damaged or destroyed in the Oklahoma tornado, affecting more than 33,000 people. The 200-mph twister cut a path of destruction 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

On Wednesday, the Medical Examiner's office identified the 24 people killed by name. Ten are children, including two infants. At an afternoon press conference, officials said they were still trying to account for six missing adults, but by evening, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told reporters they had all been accounted for. More than 300 people were injured in the storm.

President Barack Obama will visit the region on Sunday, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney. State officials said he was likely to attend a memorial service being organized for Sunday afternoon.

FEMA opened two disaster relief shelters on Wednesday with more to come, and officials urged local residents to file for relief as soon as possible--even if they already have insurance.

"We know that people are really hurting," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said in Moore. "There is a lot of recovery yet to do."

The Red Cross is operating six shelters and has a fleet of trucks canvassing the troubled neighborhoods, where many residents saw their damaged homes for the first time on Wednesday.

"I'm no stranger to disaster, but this is a rough one," said Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. "Our prayers are with the people of Moore."

Officials said the first of the 24 funerals is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's director of emergency management, pushed back against questions from reporters about why the hardest-hit schools were not equipped with safe rooms. Ashwood said he believes everyone involved did what they could to survive a tornado of this magnitude, and that tornadoes this fierce are very rare.

"This is the anomaly that flattens everything to the ground," Ashwood told reporters.

Economic experts fear the storm’s financial toll could top $3 billion. Donations have been coming in from kids with piggy banks to professional athletes. And charity groups said more cash will be needed for the months ahead.

The Moore Fire Department announced on Wednesday morning that its search for victims at the hard-hit Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children reportedly died, had ended with no new casualties discovered.

On Wednesday morning, displaced residents swapped advice and encouragement in the breakfast room at a Hampton Inn.

Allen Anderson and his wife, JoAnn, had made it back to their demolished home on Tuesday. He said the piles of muddy broken bricks and boards make it difficult to determine what’s what.

“You can’t go through the house like you normally would,” Allen, 63, told Yahoo News.

The Andersons said their longtime insurance company dropped them last year when it decided to quit covering houses in Oklahoma. JoAnn said she breathed a sigh of relief when their new carrier immediately gave them emergency cash and approved the hotel for 31 days.

“We’re going to have to find a house to rent, and we’re going to have to find a car,” she said.

--Liz Goodwin contributed to this report from New York and Holly Bailey reported from Moore, Oklahoma.