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Oklahoma launches recovery efforts after tornadoes

From staff reports Modified: February 12, 2009 at 2:48 pm •  Published: February 12, 2009
Storm-struck communities across Oklahoma launched cleanup efforts Wednesday, a day after deadly tornadoes and dangerous thunderstorms tore a course of devastation through the state.

In Lone Grove, home to about 5,000 people, residents mourned the deaths of neighbors. State authorities on Thursday confirmed eight dead. Carter County Sheriff Ken Grace had previously said a ninth victim died at a Dallas hospital, but state emergency management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said that is incorrect.

Fourteen people suffered serious injuries, and a number of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, according to the state Department of Emergency Management. Officials said four mobile home parks were damaged by the EF-4 tornado, which packed sustained wind gusts of 165 to 170 mph.

Other confirmed tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma City and Edmond, Pawnee and Logan County, according to the state Department of Emergency Management and the National Weather Service.

Gov. Brad Henry declared an emergency in 17 Oklahoma counties, a first step in seeking federal assistance.

Lone Grove

On Wednesday afternoon, Henry toured a Lone Grove mobile home park destroyed by the tornado. While some homes remained standing, most were reduced to piles of twisted metal, cinder blocks and debris.

"The devastation and the path of this tornado is tremendous," Henry said. "It takes your breath away."

Henry said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano called him at 7:45 a.m. pledging support.

President Barack Obama also called Henry today, expressing condolences and assuring that assistance will be provided.

Victims' names were not released Wednesday, but a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office said no children were among the dead.

Most mobile homes in the Bar-K park were swept away. The park was left with twisted steel foundations, clothes and housing insulation strewn in trees and numerous personal belongings strewn for acres.

Residents were allowed to return and find belongings, and some met with the governor during his visit.

They included George Lovell, 18, who returned a few minutes before Henry's arrival and stacked some of the home's few remaining possessions — six DVDs including CSI: Miami and The Little Mermaid, a folded green jacket and his mother's pink motorcycle helmet.

He also picked up a framed picture belonging to a neighbor who he said is in the hospital, and a remote control that had been missing for years.

“My dad had been giving me a hard time about that,” he said.

Kyla Campbell of the American Red Cross said 15 people stayed Monday night at a shelter established at Heritage Hall Center, 220 W. Broadway in Ardmore. More were expected to stay Tuesday night, and Campbell said the shelter will remain in place until the need dissipates.

The Red Cross also has two mental health professionals staying at Heritage Hall, along with two emergency response vehicles traveling the town and serving food. Campbell said the Salvation Army is also serving food and Baptist disaster relief is doing much of the cooking.

Survivors share stories

Survivors repeated their stories Wednesday for anyone who would listen.

Lana Hartman and seven others were huddled in a small closet, about 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide, in a one-story brick house when they felt the tornado roar past. No one in the home was hurt.

Hartman said they could feel wind beneath the closet door. A teenager in the closet began rising off the ground, and others had to hold her down by grabbing her T-shirt.

Hartman moved into the house on Tuesday, just hours before the tornado struck. Hartman's house is next door to the remains of John's Furniture on U.S. 70, which was destroyed along with the adjacent chamber of commerce building.

Wednesday morning, couches and recliners were lined up in the store, but several walls and part of the tin roof and insulation were missing.

"We'll start over"

Matt Opsahl, 25, was watching television news in his mobile home when he saw that a tornado was approaching Lone Grove. Opsahl, his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and his wife's mother quickly went to a hallway.


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