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Frantic search for survivors after Oklahoma tornado
At least 24 people were feared killed, some of them children, after a massive tornado tore through the suburbs of Oklahoma City in the US on Monday. The storm destroyed dozens of buildings including an elementary school and a hospital.
As emergency workers frantically searched for survivors on Tuesday amid the devastation caused by a massive tornado that tore through the suburbs of Oklahoma City, officials revised the death toll down to 24 from the 51 previously reported.
The higher number was attributed to the possibility that some of those killed had been counted twice, explained Amy Elliot, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.
The worst affected area was the community of Moore, a town of approximately 50,000 people around ten miles south of Oklahoma City, where the tornado left a path of devastation, turning whole rows of houses into piles of rubble and leaving cars and trucks crumpled by the roadside.
Seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit, but many more survived unhurt.
“They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out,” Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said. “They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them."
President Barack Obama pledged to provide all resources available to the government to help the state of Oklahoma in rescue and recovery efforts. “There is a long road ahead, in some cases there will be enormous grief, but you will not travel that road alone,” Obama said a press conference in Washington.
Weather forecasters reported that the giant twister measured some two miles across while the country’s National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful category. Wind speeds reached up to 200 mph – a figure matched by less than one percent of all tornadoes.
Neighbourhoods 'absolutely obliterated'
“The tornado itself was two to two-and-a-half-miles-wide when it touched down,” Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb told FRANCE 24. “It obliterated – absolutely obliterated – neighbourhoods, flattened businesses and this will be a devastating and horrific event for days to come.”
Early reports put the official death toll at 51, but Elliott later said in a televised interview with CNN that at least 91 people had been killed by the tornado, before revising the toll down to 24. About 237 people are reported to have been injured.
That figure could still rise as emergency workers search for victims among the rubble.
US President Barack Obama meanwhile declared a "major disaster" in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.
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 3pm. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the centre of town, sending residents running for cover in storm cellars and any other shelter they could find.
'We thought we were dead'
“We locked the cellar door once we saw it coming,” said tornado survivor Ricky Stover. “It got louder and next thing you know is you see the latching coming undone and 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 to be honest.”
Oklahoma City lies inside the so-called "Tornado Alley" stretching from South Dakota to central Texas, an area particularly vulnerable to tornadoes.
Monday's tornado followed roughly the same track as a May 1999 twister that killed 44 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of homes and is generally regarded as the worst tornado to strike Oklahoma since modern records began.
According to Patrick Marsh of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center, it is still too early to tell if this latest tornado is worse than the one in 1999, but he described the twister as “very strong and violent” with some “similar characteristics” to the 1999 tornado.
He also warned that more severe weather could strike the region in the coming days.
“As [the storm system] continues to move through the country, there will continue to be a threat,” he told FRANCE 24. “I think it will probably go on for at least another couple of days, slowly moving further south and east with time.”
(FRANCE 24 with wires)