Rescuers Check Piles Of Debris For Survivors In Moore, Okla.

Search and rescue teams continue digging through the rubble of demolished buildings in Moore, Okla., after Monday's devastating tornado that ripped through the Oklahoma City suburbs. Officials there say there are still some people unaccounted for — exactly how many isn't clear.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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In Moore, Okla., residents are returning to their neighborhoods and finding little more than empty lots and debris - this after a powerful tornado tore through that city, packing speeds of more than 200 miles an hour.

Search and rescue efforts are nearly complete. The fire chief in Moore said he's 98 percent sure there are no more survivors to recover in this community of 56,000 people. Officials say every home has been searched at least once. The goal is to complete three searches of each location just to be sure.

Here's more from NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing outside of what was a bowling alley, now it's torn to shreds by the tornado's fury. Around it, piles of rubble and overturned, smashed up cars tossed about by the angry tornado's winds.

On a curb sit a dozen or more men, tired and haggard looking, holding their helmets in their hands. These are the search and rescue teams from Nebraska, Texas and here in Oklahoma, who have been using specially trained dogs to search through the heartbreaking rubble of scores of homes, businesses, and tragically one elementary school in a desperate attempt to find survivors.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOGS)

SGT. JASON CROUCH: I was on my belly last night a couple of times.

SCHAPER: Sgt. Jason Crouch is a search and rescue team member with the Oklahoma National Guard. He once lived in this, the hardest hit area of Moore and can't even recognize it now, as he's geared up and ready to crawl through the rubble.

CROUCH: Going underneath cars where they have storms shelters, trying to get in there to see if there's anybody in there and moving things if you had to, you know, to see if there was an opening - especially checking under mattresses, in the bedrooms and in the bathrooms.

SCHAPER: As Crouch continues to search for survivors, he says where rooms and even buildings are now just piles of debris, he relies more on his ears.

CROUCH: You want to get in there and get to a position and just kind of stop and listen and see if you hear anything moving, hear any type of noise that's unusual that you wouldn't hear, like the noise for help, you know.

SCHAPER: At what's left of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, Commissioner Brian Maughan is coordinating search efforts to make sure there is no one left trapped there.

BRIAN MAUGHAN: And we have been diligently trying to remove piece of debris. The road equipment that we're using is actually specialized in lifting these heavy, heavy beams and there are actual cars that are inside the interior hallways and the classrooms throughout the school building.

SCHAPER: Maughan says the tornado hit the Plaza Towers School and the surrounding area with unthinkable force.

MAUGHAN: They literally had cars act as battering rams that flew through the exterior walls and then torpedoes that came through the roof, it appears.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

SCHAPER: James Rushing lived across the street from the school, which his foster son attended. He works nights and was sleeping when the storm started, waking up to the sound of hail pounding his house. He says he went outside, saw the funnel cloud bearing down and ran to the school, taking refuge in a bathroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

JAMES RUSHING: Sounds were just deafening. You could hear windows - you could even hear wood breaking. It was so loud that you couldn't hear anything but things being destroyed.

SCHAPER: When it was over, Rushing found his son, and hugged him so tight that the boy complained. Then looking across the street, Rushing saw that the home he had been sleeping in just minutes before, the home he shared with wife Kristy and five foster children, was completely gone.

JAMES RUSHING: You just never dream that you're going to get up one morning and leave one morning for work and come back and not have anything

SCHAPER: James Rushing says if he had stayed in the house, he thinks he'd almost certainly be dead. But he says the Plaza Towers School wasn't as safe as he thought it would be.

JAMES RUSHING: There were no safe rooms in that school. There was nowhere for these children to take cover but in a bathroom.

SCHAPER: Kristy Rushing agrees.

KRISTY RUSHING: Fortunately, my child happened to be in one of the bathrooms that made it. There were children that were in that backside of the building in bathrooms that did not make it. I feel like every school should absolutely have to be required to have a safe room, a complete safe room.

SCHAPER: An online petition has already been started to require reinforced storm shelters or safe rooms at schools in Oklahoma. The state's emergency management director says right now, it's up to local school districts to decide whether to build safe rooms. But he adds that such a shelter is not a guarantee that everyone will be safe, especially from a tornado as vicious and powerful as this one.

David Schaper, NPR News, in Oklahoma City.

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