Midwest tornadoes: Troops patrol devastated suburbs

Death toll stands at 44 as US army allows survivors to return to a rubble-strewn landscape
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Tornadoes: At least 44 die and thousands are injured as neighbourhoods are transformed into landscape of rubble

THE SUNRISE brings a sky of incongruous spring beauty over the huge First Baptist Church in Moore, a southern suburb of Oklahoma City. If you study its solid brick edifice you see it has suffered small wounds - the broken windows, for instance. Then you notice the metal tower that used to hold a billboard with messages from the Bible for the congregation. It is a mangled and twisted stump.

But it is when you turn around and look south over the neighbourhood the church used to serve that your breath will desert you. An almost unfathomable catastrophe has occurred: where there were houses, neat avenues, cars parked in driveways, now there is raw devastation. It is a landscape of rubble, as far as the eye can see. Mounds of bricks, snapped off trees and the litter of wrecked lives.

It is a cliche of tornado disasters to evoke war zones. Witness damage such as this and you are hard put to avoid them, however. Survivors describe the noise of the twister as it approaches, like a freight train or a jet aircraft, the sudden pressure that builds on the eardrums and the boom and roar of impact. Then, when they see what the storm has wreaked, they speak of atomic bombs and Hiroshima. At this early hour, Moore is empty of humans, aside from US army soldiers patrolling in Jeeps.

Officials estimate that 2,000 homes were destroyed in and around Oklahoma City when multiple tornadoes, triggered by an unusually potent front of thunderstorms, tore through the state and neighbouring Kansas on Monday evening. Yesterday, as the authorities began letting some residents return to their devastated streets for the first time, the death toll across the plains stood at 44. Many thousands were injured.

In Moore alone, about 1,000 homes have been obliterated in an area of four square miles. Countless businesses vanished. All because Moore had the misfortune to be the target of the worst twister of them all: half a mile wide, it was a category F-5, thought to be the most powerful possible with sustained winds of 260mph or more.

People in Oklahoma City are remembering the bomb blast in 1995 that ripped apart the Alfred J Murray building and killed 168. "This is like eight or nine Murray buildings scattered around the city," observed J C Watts, the area's Representative in Washington, as he toured Moore. "I've seen everything from a mother in a hospital not knowing where her two sons are to a family holding a wicker basket saying, `This is all we have to start over'."

James Lee Witt, the head of Fema, the federal disaster aid agency, said: "It is unbelievable. There is going to be a lot of frustration and a lot of anger." President Bill Clinton, who declared as disaster areas 11 counties in Oklahoma and one in Kansas, will visit on Saturday on his return from Europe.

The anger came yesterday as residents of some of the worst-hit areas were still being kept away. They had been promised access by the afternoon, on condition they produced proof of residence. Those who were allowed into parts of Moore daubed markers on kerbsides to identify the houses that have been vacuumed from their plots.

Moore and the other suburbs hit by the tornadoes still have to digest their roster of death. The youngest victim was a three-week-old girl; her parents yesterday were in critical condition in hospital. But there are stories of survival too. One mother fought to hold her 10-month-old in her arms as the twister engulfed her. She could not keep hold, however, and the baby vanished. Several hours later, rescuers found him in a nearby tree, alive. Among those who survived but suffered terrible injuries was a man who stumbled into a local hospital with a tree branch jammed through his thigh.

One measure of the force of the tornadoes was the distances travelled by some of what it scooped up. A horse that had been grazing in an open field was found dead in the car park of a school. A school bus was taken aloft and dumped upside down two blocks away. The grisly truth is that among the 38 who died in the Oklahoma City area, many will have been swept long distances.

"We have a lot of open spaces the tornado travelled through," said Sergeant Nate Tarver of the Oklahoma City police. "We had debris that was flying 10 to 15 miles from its original location, so it's possible that a victim could have been carried for miles too."

Officials praised the early warnings issued by the federal and local weather services relayed to residents by television and radio stations. Camera crews followed the main funnel cloud that formed about 45 miles south-west of Moore right into the metropolis. Without the warnings, assisted by Doppler Radar technology, fewer residents would have made it into shelters or found sanctuary.

John Clabes, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, has a home that took a direct hit on Monday. He marvelled at the predictions on television. "They said it was going to hit my house at 7.11, and damn if my roof didn't blow off at 7.11," he said.

But for some, the ferocity of this storm meant that there was no means of escaping it. Dennis McCarthy of the National Weather Service in nearby Norman said: "With a storm of this intensity and this magnitude, sometimes even if you do the right things, you just don't have enough shelter."

Officials said yesterday it would be at least another day before all the areas worst hit would be open to residents. Thereafter, the long clean- up will begin.

Already the cost of insurance claims is expected to top $260m (pounds 162m) in this city alone. Frank Keating, the Oklahoma Governor, said: "We will do all that we can, but for many people we are simply not going to be able to make their lives whole again."