Nightly News   |  May 21, 2013

Homeowners slowly return to destroyed neighborhoods

The 17-mile-long twister destroyed the landscape of Moore, Okla., in 40 petrifying minutes and killed at least 24 people including nine children. NBC’s Lester Holt reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> well, good evening from what has to be the saddest place on earth, the most torn-up place on earth, and that's the city of moore , oklahoma. we're south of oklahoma city , and today we had our suspicions and worst fears realized. we learned today officially what tore through here yesterday afternoon was, in fact, an ef-5 tornado. we got this video in today of the inception of the tornado. its very beginning as it started to march along its path. that means, that category mean these winds hit between 200, 210 miles an hour. the base of this storm now confirmed to be a at its widest point, 1.3 miles wide on the ground. the path was 17 miles long. 17 miles of real estate. it was on the ground for 40 minutes. and a word about the death toll having fluctuated up and down overnight and into today. it stands right now confirmed at 24. and sadly, that number includes at least 9 children. 237 people are listed as injured. the insurance claims likely topping $1 billion, but luckily there will be time to discuss all of that. and even as we stand here tonight amid all this, severe weather is still in the news this evening. we have a combination of watches and warnings over seven separate states tonight, though we're happy to report it looks like the dallas/ft. worth metro plex will avoid the worst of the severe weather . first off, to start our coverage, a very basic question -- what happened here to cause all this? lester holt , part of our team here with us to start off our coverage. lester, let's begin with this death toll . a lot of americans went to bed last night hearing a number 51 , some of them 91. a lot of us woke up this morning to see it downgraded to 24. we talk about the fog of war in situations like this, is that what happened?

>> it was the fog of war . the chaos and confusion of those early hours of a hectic search and rescue operation. meantime today the first victim dent tis were released. that of a little 9-year-old girl killed in her school. today new images of the storm as it barreled into moore , reinforcing what everyone here is saying --

>> the whole roof just came off.

>> reporter: this one was beyond anything they can remember.

>> oh, my god!

>> reporter: survivors emerged from shelter into an alien world of utter destruction.

>> the lord giveth and the lord taketh away.

>> reporter: aided by cadaver dogs, the searchers went door to door . the twister is responsible for at least 24 deaths including 9 children. 7 of them were stilled plaza towers elementary school . among them 9-year-old janae hornsby. these sisters took their own children from the school just minutes before the tornado hit.

>> we had the radio in the car and they said something about a child. i can't even remember her name. that she's alive. she's at a hospital in norman. i told my daughter, is that your friend? she started crying. mom, that's my friend. but she's alive? she's alive.

>> reporter: in a petrifying 40 minutes the landscape of this town was changed forever.

>> i have blood in my hair from my gram who was on top of me. she was bleeding because she got hit pretty hard.

>> reporter: at this 7-eleven, four bodies were recovered today including a 3-month-old baby. the moore medical center , where patients were evacuated now looks like this. entrances blocked with crumbled cars tossed during the storm. this neighborhood once dotted with trees, swimming pools and cul-de-sacs now completely obliterated, unrecognizable. the twister's devastating path 17 miles long.

>> the streets are just gone. the signs are just gone. so we've been working very hard to identify various areas of need.

>> there it is. it's a mile right there.

>> reporter: john welch , pilot reporter for kfor's chopper 4 watched the horror unfold.

>> look at that. it's like a lawn mower . went right through.

>> reporter: today we surveyed the damage.

>> this was the heart of the search yesterday.

>> reporter: its path was eerily reminiscent of that taken by a record-setting tornado that hit here 14 years ago. that twister had speeds of more than 300 miles per hour, damaged more than 8,000 homes and killed at least 36. that 1999 tornado took don bessinger's fence. this one took his home. he rode out the assault in a neighbor's storm shelter. what was it like when you were in there? could you hear it?

>> it was loud. everything was banging against the doors. and hitting the door, we thought the door was going to fly off. and the massive debris hit. so we made it to the corner of the storm shelter because we thought the door was going to leave.

>> reporter: today homeowners trickled back into destroyed neighborhoods starting with the small pieces, as they confronted the big task of putting their lives back together. and we mention that fluctuating number of confirmed dead . officials say it could change again because there are still those unaccounted for, brian, as the search goes on. we could see as many as 20,000 people displaced by all this.

>> absolutely. there's so much of this, this is going to be a long haul that begins with a grid and house by house searches which have not yet all been completed. lester holt starting off our coverage here tonight. lester, thanks.