Tornado victims take time to salvage, to mourn

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MOORE, Okla. -- Two days after a huge tornado barreled through this working-class town, authorities reopened the worst-hit neighborhoods for the first time Wednesday, giving residents a few hours to search for wedding rings, retrieve abandoned pets and pry apart a briar patch of rubble to see what had survived, and what had not.

At 3 p.m., police and military members who had been barricading the streets stepped aside to allow scores of people back into their wrecked neighborhoods. Some went in on foot, pulling their children in red wagons. Some drove pickups loaded with equipment. People carried tarps and tubs, crowbars and chain saws and anything else that could help them sift through the heaps of what had once been their houses.

Most had been home during the twister or its immediate aftermath, and knew what to expect. Others had been on vacation or out of town when the tornado struck Monday afternoon, and had been allowed back for only enough time to grab a bottle of pills or snap a cellphone photo.

On Wednesday, they got the full picture. Brick walls lay in heaps. A sports car rested belly-up in someone's living room. Beds and couches lay shredded like wisps of cotton. Some homes seemed to have been wiped clean off their foundations. Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven students died, looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.

"All you can say is it's a complete disaster," said Doug Stills, 73, a longtime Moore resident whose son's home was flattened.

With search efforts winding down and officials saying they did not expect to find any more bodies in the rubble, Wednesday's homecoming marked a first step in the long and expensive process of rebuilding Moore after yet another deadly tornado. Officials said the storm had caused as much as $2 billion in damage, pummeling 12,000 homes and affecting 33,000 people.

"People are really hurting," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a Moore news conference with local officials. "There's a lot of recovery to do." President Barack Obama plans to tour the damaged areas Sunday.

Mountains of debris litter the town. Although the water has come back, electricity is still out across much of Moore, and severed power lines snake through streets and sidewalks. Most businesses are still closed, and people who work in Moore said they were worried about how they would draw a paycheck in the months ahead.

While most of those left homeless have been staying with family and friends, or in shelters, the most determined have pitched tents amid the devastation to make sure nothing else is taken away from them.

On Wednesday, under a coppery sky, the town began to clean up. Hundreds of residents and volunteers from across the state gathered to rake the debris from cemeteries and public parks. They swept out the driveways of neighbors and total strangers, handed out free water and hot meals and began pondering whether to rebuild or move on.

As she surveyed the rubble of her home of three decades, Nadine Jones said she could never repair what had been lost. At age 83, she said, she would try to salvage what she could -- a gold-framed baby photograph of herself, a stuffed panda bear -- and move into an apartment. "It is a lot of tears," she said.

Amid the cleanup, families across the area were planning funerals and grieving for the 24 people killed in the storm. On Wednesday, the Oklahoma medical examiner's office identified most of the victims and said 10 were children, one more than had been previously reported. The cause of death in almost every case was either blunt force trauma or asphyxia.

On Wednesday afternoon, Athena Delgado paused as she walked past the crumbled school. Her son, Xavier, had been trapped inside Monday, and six of his classmates had died. Xavier, his hands sheathed in floppy gloves to dig through the rubble of his family's home, ran down the street, laughing. He paused for a moment to look at the school.

"He says he's fine," Ms. Delgado said, looking at her son, "but it'll hit him."



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