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Students, teachers from tornado-leveled school say goodbye

By Josh Levs and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 6:36 AM EDT, Fri May 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Moore holds end-of-school year event for students, teachers to say goodbye
  • Two people died in storms Sunday, in addition to 24 deaths Monday, the state says
  • High school graduation will go ahead Saturday, the incoming superintendent says
  • Insurance command center processed 4,000 claims Wednesday, commissioner says

(CNN) -- The sign that covered a set of doors read, "We Love You Plaza Towers."

Children, toting big book bags and balloons, hugged their teachers and said goodbye before departing for the summer.

Many managed a smile despite the sad fact these end-of-the-year moments took place at Eastlake Elementary School because Plaza Towers is just a huge pile of rubble.

Kaylee Sanchez, a kindergartner who was shielded by one of her teachers as the storm plowed over Plaza Towers, said she was "freaking out" before going to Thursday's reunion.

But once she and the other children got there, laughter and playfulness returned to a group that suffered the worst when an EF5 tornado struck Monday.

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Seven of their schoolmates were killed by the storm, which lead to 17 other deaths.

Kaylee's mother, Maria, applauded administrators for putting together the sendoff where students also received a backpack full of activities, snacks, stuffed animals and some basic necessities for the coming days.

"It's a really good thing because they get to see all their friends to make sure they are OK," Maria Sanchez said. "It's a good atmosphere to see the all these kids laughing and playing. ... My own daughter has been scared until today. When it started storming this morning she didn't want to come."

Pounding rain soaked Moore on Thursday morning, and winds sent pieces of debris flying, hindering recovery efforts three days after the devastating tornado.

Once she got there, Maria and the other children spilled around, and raced up to each other when they saw someone they had been worrying about.

Emily Stephens, a student at Plaza Towers, said she was in an underground shelter when the tornado hit.

"I just hope everyone's OK," she said. "I hope they get a new house -- and a better one."

Stephens said "some of my house got ripped down."

She was happy to get the crayons, books and candy and, most importantly, see her classmates.

"It makes me glad to see my friends and that they're alive," she said.

Flash flood warning issued

Two people died elsewhere in the state in storms Sunday, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said.

In all, 377 people have been treated for injuries as a result of this week's storms, the Department of Emergency Management said. It did not say how many were injured Monday.

Of the 24 people killed Monday, 10 were children -- including two infants, the state medical examiner's office said.

"All people thought missing have been accounted for at this time," Gov. Mary Fallin said.

As water gushed through the streets Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the Oklahoma City area, including Moore, and a severe thunderstorm warning.

Strong storms in southwestern Oklahoma City "are making a (southeast) turn toward Moore," the National Weather Service tweeted at 10:30 a.m. "Small hail, gusty winds, lightning and flooding main threats!"

But shortly after, the service said storms were moving out of the metropolitan Oklahoma City area. "Next chance of storms is late tonight," the weather service tweeted.

Pieces of children's book reflects the loss in Oklahoma town

Predictions of heavy wind gusts also brought with them the possibility, though slight, of an isolated twister in the area.

A group of people who rode out Monday's ferocious tornado in a bank vault huddled together under a tarp early Thursday near a CNN crew.

More thunderstorms could be ahead for the region through Memorial Day weekend.

Mother's instinct saves lives of 3 sons

Recovery process moves forward

Officials estimate that 12,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornado.

On Wednesday, a command center set up to help people with insurance processed 4,000 claims, Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak said Thursday.

"We have it down to a science here," he said.

Some people may choose to move to another neighborhood, but most are indicating they want to rebuild in Moore, Doak said.

The two elementary schools destroyed will be rebuilt, the incoming superintendent of Moore public schools said Thursday.

"That's the beginning of the healing process," Robert Romines said.

The schools did not have storm shelters.

Romines said he supports the effort to add storm shelters during the rebuilding. He called for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover it.

Other schools that were rebuilt after a 1999 tornado have such shelters, he said. But numerous other schools don't. "As funds become available, we will look at that," Romines said, adding that money "is an obstacle."

High school commencement ceremonies will take place Saturday in downtown Oklahoma City, Romines said. The community will "do the best we can and make sure that our students are all taken care of."

CNN's Sean Morris, Chuck Johnston, Judson Jones, Vivian Kuo, Jennifer Delgado and John Berman contributed to this report.

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