(Photo: Reuters/Gene Blevins)
[Updated 10:45 am, May 21: An earlier version said at least 91 people were dead, but an updated report in The New York Times says that spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner Amy Elliot's figures that at least 51 people were dead and 40 more bodies were being delivered is "no longer accurate." The confirmed death toll is 24.]
As darkness fell on the tornado-ripped community of Moore, Okla., and the severely damaged areas surrounding Oklahoma City on Monday, at least 24 people, including children, were confirmed dead as the search for survivors continued. Many undamaged and secure structures, such as churches, served as emergency shelters for those whose homes were destroyed as the result of the 200 mph winds. Government-funded disaster relief teams were joined by faith-based organizations, some already mobilized from previous disaster efforts, for immediate action.
A frantic search for students, teachers and staff at the flattened Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, which was in the storm's direct path, continued into Tuesday morning. Reports indicate that 75 third-graders were believed to have been huddled when the tornado struck, with seven now confirmed dead, a number of students showing up alive at a nearby church, and many still missing.
Christian leaders and churches quickly moved into action post-storm by offering housing, comfort, and counseling. On Twitter, #PrayForOklahoma trended most of Monday and into Tuesday morning.
Oakcrest Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, which was still housing evacuees from a storm earlier this month, was open again as a shelter. A group of quilters who usually donate their work to homes for children brought their blankets to the church for displaced residents, said Christyann Anderson, the assistant to Pastor Ben Glover, as reported by Bloomberg News.
Life Bible Church in Norman was open for commuters who could not get home because of the threat of more severe weather or were displaced. Jayson John, a pastor at the church, tweeted late Monday: "We will be picking people up at the Chik-fil-a in Moore who need rides to shelter. Also counselors available at the church 4343 N Flood."
St. Andrews Church in Oklahoma City also opened as an official shelter.
Christian-based organization Samaritan's Purse was one of several relief-experienced groups that responded to the series of vicious storms that pounded the Oklahoma City area Sunday and Monday. The ministry reported on Monday that its staff members were on their way to the affected area to determine how it can help the people impacted by the tornadoes. Two Disaster Relief Units were being deployed from its North Carolina headquarters.
Samaritan's Purse gave this report: "A mile-wide twister pounded the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, leveling homes, businesses and schools in Moore. The funnel cloud could be seen for miles, creating a debris field several miles wide. Weather officials estimated the strength of the tornado to be an EF-4 or EF-5, with radar estimates suggesting it had the potential to produce 200 mph winds."
Samaritan's Purse responded when Moore was hit hard by a tornado in 1999. That storm included the highest winds ever recorded near the earth's surface, 302 mph, and killed 36 people. On Sunday, another large tornado hit Shawnee, a town southeast of Oklahoma City, leveling several mobile homes, overturning vehicles, and killing at least one person, according to news reports.
Meanwhile, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, which shares the same CEO, Franklin Graham, with Samaritan's Purse, sent chaplains to Moore, Okla., in coordination with Samaritan's Purse.
"Our hearts are breaking for all of those in the path of this horrific tornado. Words can't do justice to the pain that is being experienced in and around Moore," said Jack Munday, international director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. "Please pray continously for all of those who lost loved ones, and for those who may still be trapped amidst the rubble."
The storms were part of a severe system that generated tornadoes in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa. Dozen of counties in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri were placed under tornado watches and warnings.
Samaritan's Purse reports that it already responded to tornadoes that hit Hood County in Texas on Wednesday night. Volunteers began helping in Granbury on Monday, the first day the group of volunteers was allowed into the affected area.
The Salvation Army is also in the process of mobilizing disaster response units to serve hard-hit areas in Central Oklahoma, including Moore and South Oklahoma City.
On Monday, the faith-based organization went into Pottawatomie County where the McAlester and Shawnee disaster response teams served multiple locations in the Shawnee area, including devastated neighborhoods and rural areas throughout the night and day. Around 3:00 pm all units were pulled into safety as tremendous storms threatened the area. Response teams will be out once again upon an all-clear, say officials with Salvation Army.
In Lincoln County, the Enid canteen provided breakfast, lunch and dinner to the Carney area throughout the early morning hours and all day Monday. In Cleveland County, the Central Oklahoma Area Command Disaster Service Unit responded to the Little Axe area with meals on Monday. The Salvation Army was responding, even as one of our Salvation Army family member's home was destroyed.
The organization said that monetary donations are the most critical need as supplies and personnel are mobilized. Donors are encouraged to give online at www.SalvationArmyUSA.org or by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY (1-800-725-2769).