Tornado Ravages Oklahoma City Suburb

Melissa Block talks to Joe Wertz of the public radio initiative State Impact about the tornado that hit the Oklahoma City area on Monday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Forty minutes - that's how long a massive, mile-wide tornado was on the ground this afternoon, near Oklahoma City. At least 51 people are dead, according to Amy Elliot, spokesperson for the state medical examiner. Hardest hit was the city of Moore, Okla., where cars were crushed, tossed and piled like toys. Entire neighborhoods are gone. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin spoke earlier this evening.

GOV. MARY FALLIN: Our prayers, and our thoughts, are with the Oklahoma families that have been hit hard by this terrible storm. And in particular, our hearts are just broken for the parents that are wondering the state of their children.

SIEGEL: The Oklahoma governor was referring there to the situation at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, where rescuers are still trying to work their way through debris in search of an unknown number of children. Reporter Joe Wertz, of the public radio initiative StateImpact Oklahoma, joins us now.

And Joe, you were reporting for some time from the Plaza Towers school. What more can you tell us about what's happening there?

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Well, it's just completely devastated right - you know, right near that school. The school itself is - the majority of it seems to be just leveled. It's just a heap of debris, at this point. The entire neighborhood in and around the school there is just obliterated; just a 360-degree, panoramic destruction from that point.

You know, the rescue effort seems to be ongoing. The - it's getting dark here now. They're moving in big lighting rigs and the - you know, the crews are coming in from every community in and around the Oklahoma City area, to help do what they can to search for survivors and to pull apart rubble and see if they can find people still underneath.

SIEGEL: Any sense of how many people - children and teachers and staff - are unaccounted for at the school, or do we not know that?

WERTZ: Well, you know, I don't know; certainly couldn't tell as much from my vantage point. I wasn't near where the official spokespeople were. But lots of concern, lots of worried people, worried parents lining up. Certainly, it seems that there are a lot of kids and people from that school among the dead, so far. So lots of people worried; understandably, very concerned.

And even if they didn't have a loved one in the family, it's obviously a big part of the neighborhood and impacts the community greatly. Lots of people out, you know, worrying about it, crying, praying with each other, and talking about it. It's just really harrowing.

SIEGEL: That clip we heard a moment ago of Gov. Fallin was from a briefing for the press that she and local officials gave, not too long ago. And one thing we heard from officials of that was that no more responders are needed. They have enough people doing this job. Do you - did that make sense to you, when you heard that?

WERTZ: That sounds consistent, at least with what I saw. It was a nonstop stream of lights and sirens moving in on that area. I saw, you know, fire department trucks from, you know, towns, 80 miles away. I saw ambulance crews, you know, from all over the region. I can't imagine that anybody is needed beyond what they have out there. You can hear heavy equipment being used, jackhammers, people using wenches, that type of thing; to try to tear down the debris, to untwist some of the metal wreckage there and dig for people.

Oklahoma, you know, responds to this type of stuff a lot. We get tornadoes on top of ice storms and, you know, we're pretty quick to respond to this type of thing; probably learned a lot of lessons from, you know, the Oklahoma City bombing - at least in responding to these types of large-scale, you know, large-scale incidents. So lots of people out. I can't imagine that there's something they need that they don't have.

SIEGEL: Moore, Okla., was home to one small hospital - one small medical center, 45-bed facility. A lot of structural damage to that building, and we're told that all of the staff and patients were successfully evacuated to nearby hospitals. But there has been a stream of people reporting to nearby emergency rooms in Norman and Oklahoma City as well, I gather.

WERTZ: Yes, there have been. Another thing is that I saw several people with lab coats and stethoscopes; doctors from the nearby hospital that had just left, you know, to come here, where some of the injuries were worse, to where some of the victims - you know, emergency situation, might have been more dire than the people that were streaming into the hospital. I know that they had been directing people with more minor injuries to sort of a triage area that they'd set up.

But there was an influx of doctors and medical staff that I saw; lots of airmen, medical airmen from the Air National Guard, National Guard from nearby Tinker Air Force Base and posts out at the airport; also streaming in to help with any type of emergency medical stuff that they could do.

SIEGEL: Well, Joe, thanks for your reporting this evening.

WERTZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Joe Wertz, of the public radio initiative StateImpact Oklahoma.

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