The Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office says 20 children are among the dead in the tornado that ripped through Oklahoma City suburbs.
The twister killed at least 51 people, and officials fear the death toll will rise.
The tornado made a direct hit on an elementary school in Moore, Okla., and authorities were seen pulling children alive from the rubble.
Oklahoma City police say the search and rescue operation at the school is now a recovery effort. Authorities are still searching for victims — and survivors — throughout the community.
The monstrous tornado was at least a half-mile wide. It flattened entire neighborhoods and destroyed the elementary school as children and teachers huddled against winds of up to 200 mph.
The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of the city. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.
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.
176 people were being treated at hospitals, including dozens of children. Search-and-rescue efforts were to continue throughout the night.
Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at the school, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.
Fallin also spoke with President Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cell phone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.
In videos 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.
Volunteers and first responders raced to search the debris for survivors.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.
Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled alive from the rubble. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.
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 center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.
Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system.
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 wide. The 1999 storm had winds clocked at 300 mph.
Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo., 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.
Lewis, who was also mayor during the 1999 storm, said the city was already at work on the recovery.
“We’ve already started printing the street signs. It took 61 days to clean up after the 1999 tornado. We had a lot of help then. We’ve got a lot of help now.”
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