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Rescue efforts in Oklahoma being scaled back

OKLAHOMA (NEWS1130) – The death toll has held steady at 24 as searchers wind down their efforts in Moore, Oklahoma.

Stories of survival have outnumbered those of tragedy as the town recovers from Monday’s monster tornado, and a single image has become a powerful symbol for those coping with the devastation.

But it turns out there is more to the emotional embrace in a photograph of first responder Jim Routon hugging first-grader Hezekiah Darbon in the ruins of Briarwood Elementary School — the two are next door neighbours, friends who play basketball in Routon’s driveway.

“I was so happy that I saw him, I didn’t know that he was coming,” Darbon told reporters after he was grabbed by his hero. “I thought my mom and dad were going to be the first ones.”

Routon told ABC News he needed the hug as much as his little friend, describing a scene of chaos at the school. “Pretty satisfying to see something familiar and he wasn’t hurt, wasn’t scratched, bruises or anything like that.”

Routon says he and the little boy go way back. “He calls me Big Dog and I call him Little Dog and so he came up with that on his own. That’s all him, that’s all his style.”

Nine children are among the dead in Moore. Two elementary schools took a direct hit from the massive twister.

State officials say a preliminary estimate suggests the cost of the tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore could be more than $2 billion.

Oklahoma Insurance Department Spokeswoman Calley Herth says the early tally of damages is based on visual assessments of an extensive damage zone stretching more than 27 kilometres and the fact that the tornado was on the ground for 40 minutes.

She says the monetary damage caused by Monday’s tornado could be greater than the $2 billion in damage from the 2011 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, which left a smaller, three-mile 4.8-kilometre trail of destruction.