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Crews search for survivors after massive twister strikes near Oklahoma City

Crews search for survivors after massive twister strikes near Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City medical examiner’s office says the death toll from a massive tornado that churned through Oklahoma City Monday has been downgraded from 51 to at least 24.

“To date, 24 deceased victims of the tornado have been transported to our Oklahoma City office, and positive identifications have been made in the vast majority of those, and these are ready for return to their loved ones,” spokeswoman Amy Elliott told FoxNews.com in an email.

Seven of the bodies are children.

Elliott said during early recovery efforts, 51 deaths were reported to the medical examiner’s office, but some of them may have been double-counted.

She cautioned Tuesday, however, that officials could see as many as 40 additional fatalities. Authorities said initially that 20 children were among the dead.

Local news reports, citing officials, said the death toll could top 90. KFOR reports that the current death toll is 91, but that number is not yet confirmed.

The storm decimated scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.

More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children.

Search-and-rescue crews were looking for anyone who may be trapped in the rubble. Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials,  Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.

Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. She also spoke with President Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

Families anxiously waited at nearby churches to hear if their loved ones had survived. 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.

“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.

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 earlier Monday from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some of the students looked dazed while others appeared 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.

Douglas Sherman drove two blocks from his home to help.

“Just having those kids trapped in that school, that really turns the table on a lot of things,” he said.

Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was also damaged by the tornado.

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.

Chris Calvert saw the menacing cloud approaching from about a mile away.

“I was close enough to hear it,” he said. “It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it.”

Even though his subdivision is a mile from the tornado’s path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa Claus’ lap in his yard.

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. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center 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. It also said the tornado was at least a half-mile wide, but other news reports estimated the width to be up to 2 miles.

Monday’s powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999; the storm then 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 working to recover.

“We’ve already started printing the street signs,” he said. “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.”

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman had predicted a major outbreak of severe weather Monday in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The area at risk does not include Moore, Okla.

On Sunday, at least two people were killed and 29 were injured in Oklahoma as a severe storm system generated several tornadoes in Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa, leveling neighborhoods and sending frightened residents scurrying for shelter as extreme conditions are expected to linger across the Midwest.

At least four separate twisters touched down in central Oklahoma late Sunday afternoon, including one near the town of Shawnee, 35 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, that laid waste to much of a mobile home park.

Elliott on Monday said the two people killed in the Shawnee-area tornado were 79-year-old Glen Irish and 76-year-old Billy Hutchinson. Both men were from the town.

Monday’s devastation in Oklahoma came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., 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, Mich., when 116 people died.

 

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/weather/2013/05/21/children-among-dead-after-twister-strikes-near-oklahoma-city/#ixzz2TwAj7Uzc

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