MOORE, Okla. — Authorities lowered the death toll from a massive tornado that devastated a town outside Oklahoma City, saying Monday it killed at least 24 people, down from 51, according to the state medical examiner’s office. Rescuers continued to search the rubble for survivors.
Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said. The death toll, which includes at seven children, was expected to climb back up.
The ferocious storm — less than 1 per cent of all tornadoes reach such wind speed — ripped through the town of Moore in a central region of the U.S. known as Tornado Alley, demolishing an elementary school and reducing homes to piles of splintered wood.
In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged urgent government help for Oklahoma Tuesday in the wake of “one of the most destructive” storms in the nation’s history.
“In an instant neighbourhoods were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, many more were injured,” Obama said from the White House State Dining Room. “Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school.”
The president added that the town of Moore “needs to get everything it needs right away.”
The storm left scores of blocks barren and dark in Moore, a community of 41,000 people 10 miles (16 kilometres) south of Oklahoma City. Rescuers tried to listen for any voices calling out from the rubble. A helicopter buzzed above, shining lights on crews below.
As Monday turned into Tuesday, Moore braced for another long, harrowing day.
“As long as we are here … we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors,” said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children.
Families anxiously waited at nearby churches to hear if their loved ones were OK. A man with a megaphone stood Monday evening near St. Andrews United Methodist Church and called out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons’ and daughters’ names.
While some parents and children hugged each other as they reunited, others were left to wait, fearing the worst as the night dragged on.
Crews continued their desperate search-and-rescue effort throughout the night at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm had ripped off the school’s roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled out alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighbourhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage centre in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.
“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” he said.
As dusk fell, heavy equipment rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.
Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was also damaged by the tornado, but not as extensively as Plaza Towers.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. Fallin also spoke Monday with President Barack Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.
The tornado also destroyed the community hospital and some retail stores. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop.
“All of my employees were in the vault,” Lewis said.
A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City’s rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. local time. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the centre of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.
The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful type of twister.
The Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma forecast more stormy weather on Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes for parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The area at risk does not include Moore, Oklahoma.
Monday’s powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999.
The weather service estimated that Monday’s tornado was at least a half-mile (800 metres) wide. The 1999 storm had winds clocked at 300 mph.
Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Missouri, said it’s unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path.
It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003.
Monday’s devastation in Oklahoma came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.
That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Michigan, when 116 people died.