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Oklahoma Tornado 2013: Rescuers Continue Search For Survivors As Cleanup Begins

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MOORE, Okla., May 22 (Reuters) - Rescue efforts in the tornado-ravaged Oklahoma City suburb of Moore continued through the night into Wednesday morning, with officials increasingly confident that everyone caught in the disaster had been accounted for.

The massive tornado that tore through the area on Monday wiped out blocks of houses, killed at least 24 people and injured about 240.

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Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said search-and-rescue dog teams would search on Wednesday for anybody trapped under the rubble, but that attention would also be focused on a huge cleanup job.

"They will continue the searches of areas to be sure nothing is overlooked," he said, adding: "There's going to be more of a transition to recovery."

After a long day of searching through shattered homes that was slowed by rainy weather, Oklahoma County commissioner Brian Maughan said it seemed no one was missing.

"As far as I know, of the list of people that we have had that they are all accounted for in one way or another," he said.

As he spoke on Tuesday evening, dog teams and members of the National Guard were changing shifts to work through the night.

The death toll of 24 was lower than initially feared, but nine children were among the dead, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School which took a direct hit by the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris of homes, schools and a hospital after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour, leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

Plaza Towers Elementary was one of five schools in its path. "They (rescuers) literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out," Oklahoma State Police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis said. "They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them."

The National Weather Service upgraded its calculation of the storm's strength on Tuesday, saying it was a rare EF5, the most powerful ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale


"I LOOKED UP AND SAW THE TORNADO"

The last time a giant twister tore through the area, on May 3, 1999, it killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also ranked as an EF5.

While Lojka said a flyover of the affected area on Tuesday showed 2,400 homes damaged or obliterated, with an estimated 10,000 people affected, the death toll was lower than might have been expected.

The toll was also a fraction of that of the 2011 twister in Joplin, Mo., which killed 161 people.

In the hours following the storm, many more people were feared dead. At one point, the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said the toll could rise as high as 91, but on Tuesday officials said 24 bodies had been recovered, down from a previous tally of 51.

"There was a lot of chaos," said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.

Some ascribe the relatively low number of dead residents discovered in Moore, home to 55,000 people, to the fact many locals have small "storm safe" shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.

Billy McElrath, 50, of Oklahoma City, said his wife hid in a storm safe in their garage when the tornado hit.

She emerged unhurt even though the storm destroyed the 1968 Corvette convertible she had bought him as a birthday present, and crushed a motorcycle. "Everything else is just trashed," he said as he loaded a pickup with salvaged goods.

Kraig Boozier, 47, took to his own small shelter in the Westmoor subdivision of Oklahoma City and watched in shock as a fan in the wall was ripped out.

"I looked up and saw the tornado above me," he said.

When he came out after the storm, he helped a neighbor who had emerged from her own shelter move a car that was blocking the entrance to another neighbor's shelter.


EARLY WARNING

Officials said another factor behind the surprisingly low death toll was the early warning, with meteorologists saying days in advance that a storm system was forming.

Once a tornado was forming, people had 15 to 20 minutes of warning, which meant they could take shelter or flee the projected path. The weather service also has new, sterner warnings about deadly tornadoes to get people's attention.

Many of those who do not have a basic storm shelter at home, which can cost $2,500 to $5,000, have learned from warnings over the year to seek hiding places at home during a tornado.

Jackie Raper, 73, and her daughter, for instance, sought shelter in the bathtub in her house in Oklahoma City to survive the tornado.

"The house fell on top of her," said Caylin Burgett, 16, who says Raper is like a grandmother to her. Raper broke her arm and femur, and bruised her lungs, Burgett said.

(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam, Lindsay Morris, Nick Carey, Brendan O'Brien and Greg McCune; Writing by Claudia Parsons and Jim Loney; Editing by Pravin Char)

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