‘It’s Like a War Zone’: Horror and Heroism in Oklahoma After Tornado Tears Through

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Kenneth M. Ruggiano for TIME

First responders and residents recover amid the aftermath of a deadly tornado in Moore, Okla. on Monday, May 20, 2013.

Updated: May 21, 2013 at 10:00 a.m.

Brandon Morgan wanted to get up early to chase tornadoes. But Morgan, 22, overslept, and by the time he rolled out of bed on Monday, the first in a series of deadly storms was already descending on Moore, his hometown. Morgan, whose hobby is chasing storms, first spotted the twister near the 7-Eleven gas station. He reported the sighting and then ran into the station to urge the four people inside to take cover. Minutes later, all four were killed.

Morgan, meanwhile, had raced away in his car, not realizing just how big the tornado was — a category 4, out of 5, on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. The storm seemed to follow him as he sped across town on Interstate 35. When the storm dissipated, he called his brother, who lives nearby, and the two headed to their grandfather’s house, not far from the 7-Eleven. Along the way they pulled two women out of the ruins of a Dollar General, and tried to get to a home that was on fire. “You hear screams, you go help,” says Morgan, who works in security and is a National Guardsman. “The military taught me that.”

(WATCH: Videos Reveal Startling Size of Oklahoma Tornado)

A massive search and rescue operation is now under way to find anyone else who might be trapped in the miles of devastated homes and buildings. According to the official counts, Monday’s twister left at least 24 dead, including 9 children who were trapped in their elementary school. It was initially thought that the storm claimed 51 lives, but Tuesday morning the Oklahoma medical examiner lowered that number, citing the storm’s initial chaos as the reason for the inflated number. But as the sun rose Tuesday morning, the death toll was also expected to spike. Most striking, though, is how the town’s landscape was drastically altered in minutes. What was once a community of homes and a ranch next to the school is now a patchwork field strewn with debris. Fallen trees arch over the rubble of flattened houses.

Compounding the misery is the fact that Moore has known tragedy before. Less than half-a-mile from the Dollar General an EF5 tornado cut an ugly swath through Moore 14 years ago, killing 36 people. The “May 3 devastation,” as folks in Oklahoma City call it, was the worst tornado to hit the area in a generation—that is, until this one. Morgan’s grandfather, for instance, survived the twister, but lost yet another home. “This is the fourth house he’s lost to tornadoes,” Morgan said. “He moved here because Moore had already been hit.”

President Obama has declared a state of emergency in five Oklahoma counties and sent in the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except for first responders and groups like the Red Cross, the entire area was closed off as officials raced to evacuate the remaining survivors and clear downed gas and power lines to make it safe for residents to return to salvage what they can.

Morgan, the storm chaser, could have reported to the Guard for duty, but instead he decided to help Fire Corps, a non-profit founded by veteran emergency responder Larry Wooter, 61. Wooter and his teams came up from Hinton, Okla., about 70 miles away and were driving around the disaster zone, handing out hot pizza, sandwiches, chips and water to the first responders. By midnight, much of the rescue operations had ceased and the focus shifted to recovery.

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Oklahoma City Suburb, Kills Dozens)

Tagging along with Fire Corps was Malorie Gulikers, 30, the newly crowned Mrs. Oklahoma. Gulikers was in the Target around the corner from the devastated Plaza Towers Elementary School, when the tornado hit. When she emerged, her car was blocked by debris and she was told by first responders to run. She did, heading for her six-year-old son’s nearby school. After determining he, her husband and their home were okay, she returned to the disaster zone. “I just couldn’t rest after this. I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “I had to help.”

At Broadway and SW Fourth Street, she picks up a scrapbook and jewelry box laying next to a teddy bear on the muddy ground. “I’m going to make it my mission to give these back to the little girl that lost them,” she says, fingering a homemade bracelet that says “Mom” in beads.

Hundreds of people are now without homes, even more without power. Cheley Stewart turned up at a shelter at St. Andrews church about three miles from Plaza Towers Elementary. The house she’d been staying at with her grandmother and uncle was half gone, but her relatives refused to leave. Stewart and her three kids will stay at the shelter for the foreseeable future. “It’s like a war zone in there,” Stewart says, trying to comfort her crying six-year old. “It’s crazy, I know. But everything will be alright.”

At Broadway and SW 4th Street someone took the tattered remains of what was once a proud American flag hanging in front of what was once a home and planted it in the crumpled shell of a blue car. It waved, torn, in the wind as another set of thunderstorms approached around midnight. A few firefighters snapped pictures. “That’s amazing. It was like that when we got here,” Vernon Boyce, 51, a Moore firefighter, says, nodding at the flag. “It’s a symbol: we’ll go on.”

This story has been updated to reflect the changing death toll.