Oklahoma National Guard troops using hand-held thermal imaging gear joined police, firefighters and other first responders Tuesday in the search and rescue effort following the massive tornado near Oklahoma City that killed at least 24, including nine schoolchildren.
“When you get out here and see all the devastation and see the people affected by it, it really hits hard,” Spc. Josh Gragert, of the Guard’s 700th Brigade Support Battalion, said in a Guard video from the scene.
Six troops from the Guard’s 146th Air Special Operations Squad arrived with the thermal imaging equipment to aid rescue teams searching the debris of homes, schools and businesses for heat signatures that might signal the presence of a victim or possibly a survivor, said Maj. Geoff Legler, an Oklahoma Guard spokesman.
Legler said a total of about 230 Guard troops, mostly from the 45th Infantry Brigade, had arrived Tuesday in the path of tornado, which left a trail of devastation about two miles wide and 17 miles long through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City. Hardest hit was Moore, Okla., a suburban town of about 56,000.
“There’s a good chance we’ll be sending more” troops to the area, Legler said. “We’re still in the assessment stage” on the support the area will need, he said. Pentagon officials said about 12,000 Guard troops in neighboring states were on standby if they were needed.
National Weather Service has assessed the tornado packed winds that reached 200-210 mph, making it an EF5, the highest category on the Enhanced Fujita scale for measuring the strength of tornadoes.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who said the Moore area had been reduced to “sticks and bricks” by the ferocity of the twister, activated the Guard on Monday, and at 7 p.m. local time a quick reaction force from the 45th Infantry Brigade was told to deploy.
By 8 p.m., about 80 troops from the 45th were on the ground in the Moore area to aid in search and rescue, provide security and set up checkpoints, Legler said. The Guard troops also brought with them several “water buffalo” trailers and MREs for the first responders, Legler said.
At the White House, President Obama issued a disaster declaration to speed resources to the scene to help the area devastated by the tornado.
“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” Obama said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate were expected in Moore on Wednesday to coordinate relief efforts.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes,” Obama said.