Rescuers are going through buildings and rubble as they wind down the search for survivors of a deadly tornado outside of Oklahoma City. At least 24 people were killed when the massive storm hit the town of Moore.
Families began returning Tuesday to the devastation left by a tornado that tore through Moore. Nine children were among the dead, including seven who died after Plaza Towers Elementary School took a direct hit from the storm.
The tornado lasted 45 minutes, destroying entire city blocks, smashing buildings and tossing cars through the air. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin described Moore as "just sticks and bricks" after a helicopter overflight and said people "can't tell where the streets were – the street signs are gone."
The storm had winds exceeding 200 mph (320 kph), leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles (23 km) long by 1.3 miles wide. The National Weather Service said preliminary estimates had the storm as the most-powerful EF-5 classification on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
In the aftermath, rescue workers were combing the ruins with cadaver dogs, lifting away broken doors and moving sections of shattered walls.
Death toll confusion
The death toll of 24 was given after the earlier official figure of 51, which included fatalities counted twice, was revised down. Around 240 people were injured and at least 100 people had been pulled alive from the debris, said Terri Watkins of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said he believed all the dead and missing had been accounted for, telling broadcaster CNN that rescue crews had gone door to door and checked the area with thermal imagers.
"We feel like we're fixing to go from rescue and searching to recovery," Lewis said.
The area was declared a federal disaster zone, with President Barack Obama calling the storm "one of the most destructive tornados in history."
"As a nation, our full focus is on the urgent work ahead of rescue and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead," Obama said from the White House, adding that the community would get all the support it needs from the federal government.
"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them for as long as it takes," he said.
Thousands estimated homeless
Oklahoma's Director of Emergency Management Albert Ashwood said it was too early to say how many people in the town of 55,000 were left homeless because of the storm, but added that it was clearly in the thousands given the damage.
Monday's tornado was the deadliest tornado since a 2011 storm in Joplin, Missouri killed 161 people. Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak said the damage from Monday's twister was likely to exceed that of the Joplin storm. Insurance losses from the tornado two years ago was more than $2 billion and are expected to rise as claims are settled.
Moore, which lies in the so-called "Tornado Alley," was also hit by a record-breaking tornado in 1999. That storm, which killed 44 people, had the highest winds ever recorded at the earth's surface at 302 mph (485 kph).
Multiple storms in the Midwest Sunday spawned tornados in Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma, killing at least one person.
dr/crh (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)