When the mile-wide twister came down just outside his town, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was watching the devastation on television, just like the rest of America.
The three-term mayor was stuck at an economic-development conference in Las Vegas—the last place that any chief executive wants to be caught when disaster visits his city.
“We’re in a search-and-rescue mode right now,” Mayor Cornett told The Daily Beast while waiting to board the first flight back home. “Right now, you’re just trying to go through and account for people, trying to find out who’s missing and then try to figure out where they might be.”
“It’s been 10 years since we’ve had a serious tornado touch down anywhere inside of our expansive city limits,” Cornett explained. “But I was watching the radar and you could tell the storm was following a track very similar to the tornadoes that came through in 1999 and in 2003”—referring to the deadly strikes through the same Oklahoma City suburb of Moore that still hold the dark distinction of being the highest velocity ever recorded. “I think that was what was a little bit eerie—that particular corridor has seen these types of things before.”
This is Tornado Alley, at the height of tornado season, and the sight of first responders digging people out of mountains of debris that were once homes and schools can make even a seasoned chief executive break character. When I asked him a little after 4:30 p.m. local time what he was hearing about casualties, Cornett said, “I know it’s common for the media to expect some sort of tally on damage and lives and injuries and deaths, but it’s just too early in the process.”
By midnight, officials were reporting the death toll at 51—including at least 20 children—but the fog of war still applies in the hours after a massive disaster. The only honest answer remains what Mayor Rudy Giuliani said instinctively after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—“more than any of us can bear.”
But Cornett has earned his city’s trust as a builder—named by Newsweek as one of the most innovative mayors in America for improving the quality of life—and his greatest rebuilding task is still ahead of him in a region that will be aching for leadership.
While Oklahoma City sustained significant damage from the tornadoes, the central part of the city was largely spared compared to the suburban city of Moore, where television cameras showed OKC first responders frantically sifting through rubble, pulling people from the wreckage.
Cornett cautioned that the danger might not be over. “There still are some concerns with the storms,” he said. “These things could still pop up. I don’t think it’s over yet for the night, but at this point I don’t think we’re expecting anything.”
It will be days before the rescue mission shifts to recovery. In the meantime, hope remains that miracles can happen and the living might be saved. For those watching the destruction at home and wanting to help, Cornett recommended donations to the Red Cross. And prayer.
“Right now we’d just appreciate their prayers,” Cornett said simply. “When you’re going through the search-and-rescue mode, it can be heartbreaking. There’s going to be a lot of families impacted by this, and that’s where our hearts are right now.”