MOORE, Okla. — The cost of a massive tornado that battered an Oklahoma City suburb could be more than $2 billion, according to a preliminary official estimate announced Wednesday. State authorities meanwhile said two infants were among the 24 people who perished in the twister.
Oklahoma Insurance Department spokeswoman Calley Herth told The Associated Press that the early damage tally is based on visual assessments of the extensive disaster zone that stretches more than 17 miles and the fact that Monday's tornado was on the ground for 40 minutes.
The financial cost of the tornado in Moore could be greater than the $2 billion in damage from the 2011 tornado that killed 158 people in Joplin, Mo., Herth said, adding that the Joplin twister left a smaller trail of destruction.
Authorities have yet to say how many homes were damaged or destroyed, but an aerial view of the site shows whole neighborhoods obliterated, with gouged earth littered with splintered wood and pulverized cars.
Dan Ramsey, president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma, said a damage estimate in the low billions is "not surprising."
"Certainly it's in the hundreds of millions," Ramsey said. "I suppose seeing projections from similar disasters, it could stretch to a billion" or more.
The National Weather Service said the tornado was a top-of-the-scale EF5 twister with winds of at least 200 mph — the first EF5 tornado of 2013.
With no reports of anyone still missing, the Oklahoma medical examiner's office announced that it has positively identified 23 of the 24 people who died in the tornado, and that 10 of those killed are children.
All of the children have been identified, among them 4-month-old Case Futrell and 7-month-old Sydnee Vargyas. Both babies died from head injuries. The eight other children ranged in age from 4 years to 9 years. Of those, six were suffocated. The other two died from massive injuries.
Medical examiner's office spokeswoman Amy Elliott said they are still trying to contact relatives of eight of the victims.
Authorities and residents of Moore have started to assess the damage and plot a future course for Moore, a town of about 56,000 that was also hit by a massive tornado in 1999.
Mayor Glen Lewis said Wednesday he would propose an ordinance in the next couple of days to modify building codes to require that every new home in the town would have a reinforced tornado shelter.
Lewis said he was confident he would get the four votes he needs on the six-member council to pass the ordinance. The measure could be in force within months.
Underground safe rooms are typically built below garages and can cost around $4,000.
Besides rebuilding or repairing, homeowners are likely to suffer other expenses, including a rise in home insurance premiums, Ramsey said.
"Three years of hail bombardments of apocalyptic proportions and then this? It has to result in some give someplace," he said.
Residents clearing massive piles of debris were also trying to get hold of essentials like mobile phones and prescription drugs lost in the destruction. Cellular service providers set up mobile retail outlets and charging stations. At least one was offering free phone calls and loaner phones.
Insurance companies have also set up emergency operation centers to take calls from people trying to get prescriptions filled and handle other health care needs.
The emotional trauma of the destruction compounded the tornado's cost.
With her son holding her elbow, 83-year-old Colleen Arvin walked up her driveway Tuesday to see what was left of her home of 40 years.
Part of the roof was sitting in the front yard, and the siding from the front of her home for the past 40 years was gone. As her son and grandsons picked through what was left of her belongings, Arvin found some dark humor in the situation.
"Oh thank God," she said, laughing, when a grandson brought over her keys. "We can get in the house."Comment on this story
Rescue workers have been searching tirelessly for survivors and victims, despite the difficulty of navigating devastated neighborhoods because all the street signs were gone. Some rescuers used smartphones or GPS devices to guide them through areas with no recognizable landmarks.
Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said Tuesday he was confident there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble. Every damaged home had been searched at least once, Bird said, but his goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors.
"I'm 98 percent sure we're good," Bird said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman, Nomaan Merchant and Tim Talley contributed to this report.