Oklahoma tornado update: Search for tornado survivors winds down
olly Yan Chelsea J. Carter and Brian Todd
4:45 PM, May 20, 2013
11:05 AM, May 22, 2013
MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) -- What began as a hunt for survivors is now an arduous recovery effort.
No new survivors or bodies have been found since Monday, the day a mammoth tornado ripped a 17-mile path of destruction in central Oklahoma and pummeled 2,400 homes.
The mayor of Moore, which bore the brunt of the tornado's wrath, said he doesn't expect the death toll to climb any higher. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed, the state medical examiner's office said.
"I think that will stand," Mayor Glenn Lewis said.
Earlier reports of at least 51 deaths were erroneous, said Amy Elliot of the state medical examiner's office. In the chaotic aftermath of the tornado, Elliot said it appeared some of the dead were counted twice.
But some loved ones are still missing.
Cassandra Jenkins has no idea what happened to her grandparents, more than a day after the twister struck their hometown of Moore.
"All we know is that their home is still left standing, however they have not been seen or heard from since the storm hit," Jenkins said as her daughters clutched photos of their great-grandparents.
"We've tried to locate them at every hospital, every shelter, every Red Cross, anything we could possibly reach out to, we have."
While the mayor of Moore said he doesn't think the death toll will rise, each passing hour brings more sobering news about the catastrophe.
About 2,400 homes have been damaged in Oklahoma City and neighboring Moore, said Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management. Roughly 10,000 residents were directly impacted by the twister.
Destruction on a colossal scale
Damage assessments Tuesday showed the tornado packed winds over 200 mph at times, making it an EF5 -- the strongest category of tornadoes measured, the National Weather Service said.
The devastation was so catastrophic, Lewis said, that city officials were racing to print new street signs to help guide rescuers and residents through a suddenly mangled and unfamiliar landscape.
The rescue workers in Moore included police and firefighters from Joplin, Missouri -- a city that knows grief and devastation all too well.
Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of the tornado that pulverized Joplin, killing at least 158 people. It was the deadliest single U.S. tornado since federal record-keeping began in 1950.
"We remember the amount of assistance that we received following the tornado two years ago, and we want to help others as they helped us," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said.
"We know too well what their community is facing, and we feel an obligation to serve them as they have served us."
'Still can't believe this'
Some residents of Moore ventured back to where their homes once stood, only to find unrecognizable scraps of their lives.
"You just wanna break down and cry," Steve Wilkerson said, his voice trembling.
He held a laundry basket that contained the few intact belongings he could find.
"I still can't believe this is happening. You work 20 years, and then it's gone in 15 minutes."
Amid the trauma and grief blanketing Moore, tales of heroism and gratitude sprouted up across the city.
Several teachers at Briarwood Elementary shielded their students with their bodies or distracted them with impromptu games as they took cover from the tornado that demolished their school.
Suzanne Haley was impaled by the leg of a desk wile protecting her students.
"We crowded the children under desks, and me and a fellow teacher put ourselves in front of the desks that the children were under," she told CNN's Piers Morgan.
The roof and walls collapsed around them as the tornado's fury enveloped the school. The leg of the desk pierced through her right calf, jutting out on both sides.
"By the grace of God, I kept it together," she said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. I had to be calm for them."
Miraculously, everyone at Briarwood survived.
While many describe the teachers as heroes, Haley dismisses the title.
"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do," she said. "These children -- we see their smiles, their tears, every day, in and out, and we love them."
CNN's Holly Yan and Chelsea J. Carter wrote and reported from Atlanta; Brian Todd reported from Moore. CNN's Mayra Cuevas, Sara Weisfeldt, Gary Tuchman, Ed Lavandera, Pamela Brown and George Howell contributed to this report.