Oklahoma tornado: Search for survivors continues

The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports on the landscape left behind

Emergency workers in the US are continuing to search for survivors of the gigantic tornado that tore through a suburb of Oklahoma City on Monday.

Rescuers worked through the night and into the morning in the rubble in Moore, the worst-hit area.

Entire neighbourhoods were flattened by winds of up to 200mph (320km/h).

At least 24 people were confirmed dead, including nine children, the chief medical examiner said. Earlier, officials said 51 were confirmed dead.

"We have got good news. The number right now is 24," Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer at the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, told reporters.

"The prior figure of 51 dead may have included some double-reported casualties."

At one point, as many as 91 people were feared dead.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said it was too early to confirm the number of dead. Some bodies had reportedly been taken directly to funeral homes and were awaiting a final count, she said.

Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said on Tuesday afternoon that emergency workers were nearing the end of their search. He was "98 percent sure" there were no more survivors or bodies to recover.

"We will be through every damaged piece of property in this city at least three times before we're done, and we hope to be done by dark tonight," he said earlier.

At the scene

The images of teachers carrying children from the destroyed primary school in Moore will be the most indelible of this disaster. Now the scene is an active search and rescue site, with firefighters combing the area for survivors and bulldozers and diggers ploughing away the rubble.

It was striking to drive through the town of Moore with streets in pitch blackness as flashes of lighting lit up the horrific destruction from the tornado.

Homes on one street were reasonably intact and then one block away was a post-apocalyptic scene of homes and trees ripped to shreds, rescuers floodlit searching through what used to be a primary school. Children's toys and bicycles litter the streets. Massive hunks of metal dangle from shredded trees. The smell of a gas leak filled the air.

The hospital with its roof ripped off stands as a lone structure next to what used to be a bowling alley - bowling balls and arcade games entombed in rubble. There are reports on the ground that the kindergarten class was the hardest hit at the destroyed school but that many of the older children were able to escape with the help of their teachers.

When asked what it was like to be one of the first on the scene, a captain with the local police force said: "It's all too familiar, it's just like 1999," referring to the massive tornado that destroyed much of this same small town 14 years ago.

One search and rescue worker at a school that stood directly in the tornado's path told CBS News that officials suspected some of the children who died had been trapped in a pool of water.

"The children were in the main hallway, which is where they were supposed to be during their tornado drills, and the roof collapsed on top of them," Becky Nelson said.

"They suspect waterlines broke and the children drowned because they couldn't get up from the debris."

Albert Ashwood of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said the two schools hit by the tornado, Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary, did not have safe rooms that protect against the high winds of tornados.

More than 100 schools in Oklahoma had been provided with state-funded safe rooms, Mr Ashwood said, but not those two.

President Barack Obama offered his prayers to the people of Moore and pledged whatever assistance they needed during the disaster response.

"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, beside them, for as long as it takes," he said.

Betsy Randolph of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol told the BBC there had been flashes of good news during the long night's search for bodies.

"I was hearing just a few moments ago we believe about 101 people were found alive in cellars and different places throughout the city," she said.

"As far as we're concerned, if one person is unaccounted for, we're going to stay and we're going to search until we find that one person."

Heavy-lifting equipment was deployed under bright floodlights as the operation went on through the night and continued as dawn broke.

More than 200 Oklahoma National Guardsmen as well as personnel from other states were called in to help the search-and-rescue effort.

In the background, the weather remained unsettled with regular lightning strikes spotted.

Aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in a suburb of Oklahoma City The huge tornado ripped through a suburb of Oklahoma City, flattening entire neighbourhoods.
A fire burns in the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore The tornado - said to be at least a mile-wide (1.6km) - destroyed a school in Moore, just south of the city.
A boy is pulled from the wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore Rescuers pulled a number of children alive from the wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Rescue workers dig through the rubble of a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore But across the city at least nine children have been killed.
A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore Some pupils were carried away by their distraught parents and others.
A woman is pulled out from under tornado debris at the Plaza Towers School President Barack Obama ordered federal authorities to join in the search efforts which continued throughout the night.
The tornado above Moore It was at least the third tornado to strike Moore since 1999, when more than 40 people were killed.
The Moore Medical Center The Moore Medical Center was destroyed by the tornado.
Rescue workers carry a woman to safety from the Moore Medical Center Rescue workers helped free at least 15 people trapped in the debris from the building.
Flattened homes in Moore Meteorologists said the twister generated winds of up to 200mph (321km/h) which reduced some districts to rubble.
Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school in south Oklahoma City Teachers evacuated pupils from another school - Briarwood Elementary - which was also hit by the twister.
People assess the damage to their homes Residents returned to their homes in Moore, a suburb of about 55,000 people, to assess the damage.
Dana Ulepich searches inside a room left standing at the back of her house Here Dana Ulepich searches inside a room left standing at the back of her house.
Rachel Hilton holds stray kittens found in the debris Resident Rachel Hilton holds stray kittens she found in the debris of her parents' home.

President Obama has declared a major disaster in Oklahoma and ordered federal authorities to join in the search efforts.

The twister hit Moore, a suburb of about 55,000 people, at 15:01 (20:01 GMT) on Monday and remained on the ground for about 45 minutes.

Gov Fallin said the trail of destruction was about 20 miles (32km) long and the tornado was as wide as two miles at times.

"There's just sticks and bricks basically," she said after an aerial tour of the disaster zone.

About 237 people were treated in hospitals, and mental health facilities will be set up in the affected area, Gov Fallin said.

Map of Moore, Oklahoma 20 May 2013

The storm left a tangle of ruined buildings, piles of broken wood, overturned and crushed cars and fires in some places.

Many houses in the area are built on hard ground without basements, so many residents struggled to find shelter.

"We locked the cellar door once we saw it coming, it got louder and next thing you know is you see the latch coming undone," survivor Ricky Stover said.

Worst US tornadoes since 1900

  • 18 May 1902 114 deaths in Goliad, Texas
  • 24 April 1908 143 deaths in Amite, Louisiana and Purvis Mississippi
  • 18 March 1925 695 deaths in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana
  • 5 April 1936 216 deaths in Tupelo, Mississippi
  • 6 April 1936 203 deaths in Gainesville, Georgia
  • 9 April 1947 181 deaths in Woodward, Oklahoma
  • 22 May 2011 158 deaths in Joplin, Missouri.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

"We couldn't reach for it and it ripped open the door and just glass and debris started slamming on us and we thought we were dead."

The National Weather Service said Monday's tornado measured EF-4 on the five-point Fujita scale - the second most powerful type.

Tornadoes, hail and high winds also hit Iowa and Kansas, part of a storm system stretching from Texas to Minnesota.

On Sunday, another tornado killed two people near Shawnee, Oklahoma.

The town of Moore was hit by a severe tornado in May 1999, which had the highest winds ever recorded on Earth, over 310mph.

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