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Riding out US tornado in a walk-in freezer: a survivor's tale
by Staff Writers
Moore, Oklahoma (AFP) May 21, 2013

Tornado turns US Marine vet's town into 'war zone'
Moore, Oklahoma (AFP) May 22, 2013 - Curtis Carver has every intention of rebuilding from scratch the house he lost in Monday's powerful and deadly hurricane that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb.

But first, the construction worker and 20-year veteran of the US Marine Corps, who spent two years on active duty in Iraq, wants to recover his memories from the rubble -- and law enforcement is getting in the way.

"My pictures. That's all I want -- my pictures," he said Tuesday while cooling his heels and suppressing his anger at a road block where a police officer politely but firmly denied him access to the disaster zone.

Other residents could enter with a valid proof of address, and many did, toting out by foot whatever they could in bags and luggage of all shapes and colors to their cars parked a few miles (kilometers) away.

But Carver's house, in the vicinity of Southwest 14th Street and Santa Fe Avenue, was in an area deemed by authorities Tuesday to be still too hazardous to enter, although he did get a glimpse of it Monday evening.

"It was my home, my kids' home," said Carver, a 38-year-old father of two, wearing a camouflage jacket over an Oklahoma T-shirt. "Now it's gone. There's nothing left. It's a pile of sticks.... and they're keeping me away."

"It was dead in the middle" of the tornado's 17-mile (27-kilometer) trail of destruction that claimed at least 24 lives, including several children, he added. "It was a target."

Carver's 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter luckily escaped harm because his aunt had taken them to a doctor's appointment. He himself was at work in Tulsa, a two-hour drive away.

On the fringes of the tornado's path, evidence of the twister's daunting power to destroy was staggering.

Most of the widely-scattered debris consisted of splinters of wood never more than a foot (30 centimeters) long, as well as fragments of particle board and chunks of insulation. Bigger objects were few and far between.

Here and there were touchingly personal items: a bicycle wheel, a baseball mitt, a golf ball, a red Christmas stocking, a CD compilation of Christmas songs with the name Kim written in felt pen, a black wig.

Whatever cars and pickup trucks escaped being flung into the air like toys by the fast-moving wind funnel were splattered instead with dark red Oklahoma mud and pockmarked with dents inflicted by hailstones.

Along Santa Fe Avenue, utility poles that snapped in the 200 mile (321 kilometer) per hour winds stretched across the pavement like fallen soldiers. Pedestrians tip-toed around the wires, which no longer carried electricity.

What few trees stood amid Moore's flat cityscape were shorn of their tops.

"This is a war zone," said Carver, who deployed in the frontline Iraqi city of Fallujah as a sergeant in a Marine Corps general engineering unit. "Even if there's not a big (bomb) hole in the ground, it's a war zone."

Helping inhabitants recover belongings were orange-shirted employees of Home Depot, a national building supply chain whose local outlet is doubling as the command post for search and rescue teams and relief workers.

"We were in Dallas for a meeting and we thought this was a better place to be," said one of the volunteers, Michael Albrecht, who hails from Atlanta, Georgia, where the company is headquartered.

He and his comrades said they had helped residents unearth official paperwork such as passports and tax declarations, but also "a lot of collectables" such as Star Wars memorabilia and part of a coin collection.

Clothing was also highly coveted. While bedroom dressers might have been broken into pieces, their textile contents were invariably intact and ready to be worn again by their owners.

For years Anita Zhang's neighbors joked that if a tornado ever bore down on her Chinese restaurant, folks could take refuge in its roomy walk-in freezer.

On Monday, Zhang got the chance to test their idea -- and to live to tell the tale -- when one of the most powerful and destructive twisters to hit the United States in recent years ripped through this Oklahoma City suburb.

"I'm so lucky," she said, over and over, as she told her story to AFP through an interpreter Tuesday in the driveway of her home in another section of Moore that escaped the tornado's raw fury.

A native of Guangdong, the southern Chinese province that's no stranger to merciless typhoons, 57-year-old Zhang emigrated to the United States 10 years ago with other members of her family.

She opened the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant on Southwest 19th Street seven years ago in a commercial strip mall that catered to Moore's many handsome middle-class residential developments.

It had a good reputation for such dishes as spicy fried General Tso chicken. "Great food at a great price," wrote one Google reviewer. "Very nice family-owned restaurant. The food is excellent. Service is quick."

Monday's tornado -- which police say killed at least 24 people with its 200 mile (320 kilometer) per hour winds cutting a 17 mile (27 kilometer) swath through Moore -- was quick, too.

She was watching live storm coverage on local TV in the restaurant with her brother Michael Zhang, 50, when suddenly the power went off, the neighborhood disaster sirens wailed and the dark funnel of fury drew near.

Into the freezer the siblings went -- with a blanket, thoughtfully -- to sit out the twister as it passed literally on top of them, pulverizing everything in its path.

"I thought it was an earthquake," recalled the Cantonese-speaking Zhang, whose Mandarin Chinese name is Zhang Jianci.

"I felt the building was shaking and moving. There were loud noises and banging and wind blowing... I thought only the glass door of the restaurant would be broken, but when we crawled out, everything was gone."

Initially, the Zhangs struggled to open the freezer door against the debris.

Michael was first to wiggle out; Anita was too scared to follow, until her brother announced that nearby buildings were on fire.

Once out of the freezer, Anita Zhang heard people shouting: "Anyone there?" Later, she learned from her daughter that it was the neighbors, coming to check on their safety.

Zhang's misfortune was for the business her immigrant family had toiled so hard to build to be literally on the wrong side of Southwest 19th Street, which turned out to be the southern edge of the tornado's scalpel-like track.

On the north side of the street, besides the restaurant, the tornado smashed the entire Camden Village strip mall, including a liquor store that Tuesday reeked of broken bottles of booze, as well as a Walgreen's drug store.

On the opposite side, however, a rival CVS pharmacy got off unscathed -- so much so that it re-opened for business. An adjacent low-rise apartment complex likewise sustained no serious damage.

"We stood in the windows and watched it (the tornado) coming in," recounted Karen Smith, who works at the apartment complex. She and daughter Elizabeth then rode out the storm under a staircase, snuggling up with their dachshund Lucy.

Police denied access to non-residents Tuesday to the worst-hit residential streets in Moore, but the startling scale of the destruction was all too visible from the sidelines.

Zhang's family returned to the restaurant Tuesday to recover whatever they could salvage -- sacks of white rice, cans of vegetables, a barrel of MSG -- for safekeeping in the two-car garage back at home.

Longer term, Zhang would like the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant to reopen.

It was insured, she said, although 24 hours after disaster struck, the family is still coming to grips with everything that's happened so suddenly.

For now, she's more than content that her two granddaughters are unhurt. Their mother, who is Zhang's daughter, took them out of school before the tornado got too close and drove off with them to safety.

"They are back now," she said with a sigh of relief. "They are alive."


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Oklahoma tornado was strongest category: official
Washington (AFP) May 21, 2013
The massive tornado that cut a wide and deadly swath through a suburban Oklahoma City town was a top category EF5 system with winds over 200 mph (321 kmh), a weather official told AFP Tuesday. "It's an EF5," the most powerful tornado classification, said Kelly Pirtle of the NOAA national Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, of the wedge tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on Monday. ... read more

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