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 Cleveland County, Okla. takes brunt of a "grinder" tornado

By Charlie Ban
STAFF WRITER

Special: Oklahoma County commissioner provides 'boots on the ground' in Moore, Okla.


After a tornado cut through Cleveland County, Okla. Sunday night, Commissioner Rod Cleveland considered the results and felt somewhat fortunate.

“It mainly went through rural areas, though it hit a few neighborhoods,” he said. “It could have been worse.”

A day later, it was. A second tornado left a 17-mile path of destruction and 24 confirmed dead in the areas south of Oklahoma City as of Tuesday afternoon. The storm affected Oklahoma, Pottawatomie, Cleveland, Lincoln and McClain counties, with the most severe damage in the suburb of Moore, in eastern Cleveland County. The tornado’s path mimicked those of tornadoes in May 1999 and May 2003, but outdid their impacts.

“This one was a grinder,” Cleveland said. “In ’99, it swept through pretty fast. This one just sat on us for a while.”

The National Weather Service (NWS) reported that the tornado was approximately half a mile wide and was on the ground moving northeast for approximately 40 minutes. The storm’s maximum width will be determined after the four NWS survey teams complete their work. The NWS said the tornado intensified rapidly, over the course of four miles, and by the time it reached Moore, its estimate peak winds topped out at 190 miles per hour, earning the second most severe designation for tornados.

Cleveland spent Tuesday viewing the extent of the destruction.

“We have whole neighborhoods a half-mile wide where there’s no houses, buildings are stripped down to the foundation,” he said. “Not one tree standing.”

The commercial center of Moore, which had largely developed in the 14 years following the last major tornado hit, was “pretty much devastated.”

At the Moore Medical Center, three cars were in a pile.

“It looks like someone stacked them to get them out of the way,” Cleveland said. “The storm did that.”

County facilities escaped damage, with the health department building being mere blocks from the tornado.
“We have quite a few county employees that lost their homes, though,” Cleveland said.

The county’s priority was clearing roads—sweeping nails, clearing downed power lines—and by Tuesday afternoon the major thoroughfares were open, but the task of opening roads to neighborhoods remained daunting.

Gayle Ward, executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, didn’t sleep at all Monday night. 

“This one is absolutely the worse one we’ve ever seen,” she said from her office in Oklahoma City.

Supplies, she said, are pouring into the city, where they’ve been temporarily stored in the Feed the Children warehouse. “We’re having trouble storing all the supplies,” she said, which can’t yet be distributed because search and recover activity is ongoing.  “It’s a real touchy situation. They’re still looking for bodies.“

She’s been suggesting to people who call her office wanting to help that they send donations to the Red Cross. “They’re the people on the ground handing out toothbrushes to the kids or clean underwear. They need money to do that.”

Ward said she couldn’t get the children out of her mind. Four schools in the Moore area were impacted by the tornado, which weather observers said was topped by 2-mile wide debris ball.

The Associated Press reported that the tornado tore the roof off of Plaza Towers Elementary and knocked down walls while students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms. CNN added that seven students there died.

“Hitting a school is going to change things.” There is already talk in the State Legislature, she said, about bond issues to finance storm shelters in schools.

It’s easy to get complacent about tornados in Oklahoma, but that’s all changed for Ward.

“I just paid a ton of money for a security system for our [association’s] building. Now, I’m going to have my staff look into building a storm shelter in the back so we have someplace to go.”

NWS reported that the tornado touched down in Grady County at 2:45 p.m. central time and ended at 3:35 p.m. central time in Moore, part of Cleveland County. The service declared a tornado emergency for McClain, Oklahoma and Cleveland counties.

According to the Associated Press, more than 200 emergency responders who worked through the night looking for survivors, aided by helicopter-mounted spotlights.

Oklahoma State Department of Health reported that Moore Medical Center was damaged, which prompted 13 patients to be transported to other hospitals. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission reported more than 61,500 outages related to the storm.

President Obama signed a disaster declaration Monday night and ordered federal assistance to the area.

 
Oklahoma County commissioner provides 'boots on the ground' in Moore, Okla.

Oklahoma County, Okla. Commissioner Brian Maughan saw firsthand the damage to Plaza Towers Elementary School. He describes it here:

"As soon as we saw the funnel on television in our county emergency operations center, I alerted our crew to prepare all our heavy equipment for movement to Moore. We were rolling before 5 o’clock and after we arrived we were assigned to what was probably the most sensitive location, the devastated Plaza Towers Elementary School where a number of children had died."

"We staged our equipment that night and remained on site for the next few days, assisting the rescue workers in lifting and moving an amazing amount of rubble. At one point the firefighters feared that a victim might be located beneath a car that had been thrown upside down into the principal’s office. We used our Gradall to pull down exterior walls to access the area and then to remove the car. Fortunately there was no victim."
 
"Our entire crew has worked with diligence and dedication in this effort. They have formed a close team with the rescue personnel. I am just immensely proud of what they have done to help the people of Moore. In cases like this, jurisdictional lines don’t count. We are here to help for as long as necessary."

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        Commissioner Brian Maughan
          Oklahoma County, Okla.