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Fire chief says search almost complete in Oklahoma

REUTERS - Rescue workers look through the rubble at Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma May 21, 2013 after a devastating tornado ripped through the town May 20. Officials report that he 2-mile (3-km) wide tornado has killed at least 24 people and injured more than 200 others. REUTERS/Richard Rowe (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>Rescue workers look through the rubble at Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma May 21, 2013 after a devastating tornado ripped through the town May 20. Officials report that he 2-mile (3-km) wide tornado has killed at least 24 people and injured more than 200 others. REUTERS/Richard Rowe   (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)
AP - Austin Brock holds cat Tutti, shortly after the animal was retrieved from the rubble of Brock's home, which was demolished a day earlier when a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. A huge tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburb Monday, flattening an entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Austin Brock holds cat Tutti, shortly after the animal was retrieved from the rubble of Brock's home, which was demolished a day earlier when a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. A huge tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburb Monday, flattening an entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds.
AP - Zac and Denisha Woodcock look through the rubble of a tornado-ravaged rental home which they own Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla. A huge tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburb Monday, flattening an entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Zac and Denisha Woodcock look through the rubble of a tornado-ravaged rental home which they own Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla. A huge tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburb Monday, flattening an entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds.
AP - Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin looks out the window of a National Guard helicopter as she tours the tornado damage in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin looks out the window of a National Guard helicopter as she tours the tornado damage in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
AP - A local resident allowed looks through the rubble of a destroyed home, one day after a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Emergency crews searched the broken remnants of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday for survivors of a massive tornado that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>A local resident allowed looks through the rubble of a destroyed home, one day after a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013.  Emergency crews searched the broken remnants of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday for survivors of a massive tornado that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school.
AP - This aerial photo shows the remains of houses in Moore, Okla., following a tornado Monday, May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>This aerial photo shows the remains of houses in Moore, Okla., following a tornado Monday, May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.
REUTER - Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and rescue workers dig through the rubble of Plaza Tower Elementary school May 21, 2013, after a devastating tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, May 20. The 2-mile (3-km) wide tornado is feared to have killed up to 91 people and injured more than 200.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTER</em></div>Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and rescue workers dig through the rubble of Plaza Tower Elementary school May 21, 2013, after a devastating tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, May 20. The 2-mile (3-km) wide tornado is feared to have killed up to 91 people and injured more than 200.
REUTERS - A women is treated for her injuries at a triage area set up for the injured next to the IMax theatre, after a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City, May 20, 2013. At least 91 people, including 20 children, were feared killed when a 2 mile wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, trapping victims beneath the rubble as one elementary school took a direct hit and another was destroyed.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>A women is treated for her injuries at a triage area set up for the injured next to the IMax theatre, after a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City, May 20, 2013. At least 91 people, including 20 children, were feared killed when a 2 mile wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, trapping victims beneath the rubble as one elementary school took a direct hit and another was destroyed.
AP - Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013.
AP - President Barack Obama, accompanied by, from left, Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino. talks about the Oklahoma tornado and severe weather, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>President Barack Obama, accompanied by, from left, Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino. talks about the Oklahoma tornado and severe weather, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.
REUTERS - Administrator for FEMA W. Craig Fugate (C) speaks during a press conference with city officials in Moore, Oklahoma May 21, 2013. The tornado, with winds that may have topped 200 miles (322 km) per hour, killed at least 24 people and injured hundreds more, with many of the casualties children from two schools that were destroyed.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>Administrator for FEMA W. Craig Fugate (C) speaks during a press conference with city officials in Moore, Oklahoma May 21, 2013. The tornado, with winds that may have topped 200 miles (322 km) per hour, killed at least 24 people and injured hundreds more, with many of the casualties children from two schools that were destroyed.
AP - This aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., Monday May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school. (AP Photo/Steve Gooch)
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>This aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., Monday May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school. (AP Photo/Steve Gooch)
AP - This aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., Monday May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>This aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., Monday May 20, 2013. A tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.
REUTERS - People salvage belongings after a huge tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>People salvage belongings after a huge tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
REUTERS - A triage area is set up next to the IMAX theatre for people injured by a tornado that struck in Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>A triage area is set up next to the IMAX theatre for people injured by a tornado that struck in Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
REUTERS - People are seen next to a damaged house and vehicles along a street after a huge tornado, in Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>People are seen next to a damaged house and vehicles along a street after a huge tornado, in Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
REUTERS - Abby Madi (left) and Peterson Zatterlee comforts Zaterlee's dog Rippy, after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>Abby Madi (left) and Peterson Zatterlee comforts Zaterlee's dog Rippy, after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
REUTERS - An American flag lies on top of an overturned car after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>An American flag lies on top of an overturned car after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.
AP - Briarwood Elementary P.E. teacher Mike Murphy comforts Aiden Stuck, 7, as he waits for his mother at the school after a tornado destroyed Briarwood Elementary and struck south Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Briarwood Elementary P.E. teacher Mike Murphy comforts Aiden Stuck, 7, as he waits for his mother at the school after a tornado destroyed Briarwood Elementary and struck south Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013.
AP - Injured horses huddle together after the tornado hit the area near 149th and Drexel on Monday, May 20, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Injured horses huddle together after the tornado hit the area near 149th and Drexel on Monday, May 20, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Okla.

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No new funds needed for Okla. tornado recovery

WASHINGTON — Top lawmakers and officials say the federal government has plenty of money on hand to pay for recovery efforts in the devastating tornado that struck Oklahoma.

The government has more than $11 billion in its main disaster relief fund. Recovery costs in Moore, Okla., are expected to be a relatively small fraction of that amount. The devastating 2011 tornado that wiped out much of Joplin, Mo., use up about $750 million in federal disaster aid.

White House press secretary Jay Carney and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill all agreed Tuesday that there's no immediate need for additional disaster aid.

Reforms put in place in 2011 gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency a more predictable stream of disaster aid. FEMA also got additional funding from January's Superstorm Sandy relief bill.

Daily Photo Galleries

By The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 6:59 a.m.
 

MOORE, Okla. — The search for survivors and the dead is nearly complete in the Oklahoma City suburb that was smashed by a mammoth tornado, the fire chief said Tuesday.

Gary Bird said he's “98 percent sure” there are no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in Moore, a community of 56,000 people.

His comments came after emergency crews spent much of the day searching the town's broken remnants for survivors of the twister that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. The storm killed at least 24 people, including at least nine children.

Every damaged home has been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal is to conduct three searches of each location just to be sure. He was hopeful the work could be completed by nightfall, but the efforts were being hampered by heavy rain.

No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.

Earlier in the day, the state medical examiner's office cut the estimated death toll by more than half. Gov. Mary Fallin vowed to account for every resident.

“We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength,” said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as “hard to look at.”

Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

“It was a very eventful night,” Elliott said. “I truly expect that they'll find more today.”

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

New search-and-rescue teams moved in at dawn Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who had worked all night. A helicopter shined a spotlight from above to aid in the search.

Many houses have “just been taken away. They're just sticks and bricks,” the governor said, describing the 17-mile path of destruction.

More than 200 people have been treated at hospitals.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was an EF5 twister, the most powerful type, with winds of at least 200 mph.

The agency upgraded the tornado from an EF4 on the enhanced Fujita scale to an EF5 based on what a damage-assessment team saw on the ground, spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said Tuesday.

The weather service says the tornado's path was 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

Emergency crews were having trouble navigating neighborhoods because the devastation was so complete, and there are no street signs left standing, Fallin added.

Other search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.

Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said Tuesday.

Many parents of missing schoolchildren initially came to St. Andrews United Methodist Church, which had been set up as a meeting site. But only high school students were brought to the church, causing confusion and frustration among parents of students enrolled at Plaza Towers. They were redirected to a Baptist church several miles away.

“It was very emotional — some people just holding on to each other, crying because they couldn't find a child; some people being angry and expressing it verbally” by shouting at one another, said D.A. Bennett, senior pastor at St. Andrews.

After hearing that the tornado was headed toward another school called Briarwood Elementary, David Wheeler left work and drove 100 mph through blinding rain and gusting wind to find his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. When he got to the school site, “it was like the earth was wiped clean, like the grass was just sheared off,” Wheeler said.

Eventually, he found Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him. His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head - but he was alive. As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood were initially sent to the halls, but a third-grade teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — thought it didn't look safe and so ushered the children into a closet, he said.

The teacher shielded Gabriel with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces, Wheeler said.

“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” Wheeler said.

The tornado also grazed a theater and leveled countless homes. Authorities were still trying to determine the full scope of the damage.

Roofs were torn off houses, exposing metal rods left twisted like pretzels. Cars sat in heaps, crumpled and sprayed with caked-on mud. Insulation and siding was smashed up against the sides of any walls that remained standing. Yards were littered with pieces of wood, nails and pieces of electric poles.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

“Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew - their school,” he said Tuesday.

The town of Moore “needs to get everything it needs right away,” he added.

Obama spoke following a meeting with his disaster-response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and top White House officials.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, including the Moore area.

Monday's tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998.

The 1999 storm damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses. Two or three schools were also hit, but “the kids were out of school, so there were no concerns,” recalled City Manager Steve Eddy.

At the time of Monday's storm, the City Council was meeting. Local leaders watched the twister approaching on television before taking shelter in the bathroom.

“We blew our sirens probably five or six times,” Eddy said. “We knew it was going to be significant, and there were a lot of curse words flying.”

Monday's twister came almost exactly two years after an enormous tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

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