The search for survivors and bodies in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, which was devastated by a huge tornado on Monday that left at least 24 people dead, is nearing an end, officials said on Tuesday.
After nearly 24 hours spent exploring rubble and overturned vehicles, rescue workers in the US on Tuesday said they were nearing the end of their search for survivors of Monday’s tornado that ripped through the suburbs of Oklahoma City.
Scientists had earlier upgraded the twister, which struck the town of Moore approximately ten miles south of Oklahoma City, to an extraordinarily powerful EF5 ranking on the Fujita scale used to measure tornado strength; They had previously put it in the EF4 category.
EF5 tornadoes have wind-speeds of at least 200mph and are capable of lifting reinforced buildings off the ground, hurling cars like missiles and stripping trees completely free of bark.
FRANCE 24's correspondent reporting from Moore
The tornado, which was at least half a mile wide, left a trail of devastation across Moore – a community of around 50,000 people – with countless houses and other buildings reduced to piles of rubble.
Officials said at least 24 people were killed, revising down an earlier death toll of 54 after the state medical examiner said some victims may have been counted twice in the confusion.
Among the dead were nine children, seven of whom were killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Rescue efforts were hampered by emergency crews struggling to navigate devastated neighbourhoods that had been left devoid of street signs and in many cases any recognisable landmarks.
Search '98 percent complete'
However, by Tuesday evening, the search was close to complete, with Moore's fire chief saying he was confident there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.
“I'm 98 percent sure we're good,” Gary Bird told reporters.
By Tuesday afternoon, every damaged home in Moore had been searched at least once, Bird said.
His goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors. The fire chief was hopeful that could be completed before nightfall but efforts were being hampered by heavy rain.
No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.
Crews also continued a brick-by-brick search of the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where rescue workers had earlier 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 students looked dazed, others terrified.
Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said.
Barack Obama meanwhile declared a "major disaster" in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes,” said the US president.
Cost of damage 'to exceed $3 billion'
As well as the human cost, the repair bill for the damage caused by the tornado to buildings and infrastructure is likely to run into the billions.
Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak told Reuters that the cost of the devastation will probably total more than that caused by the 2011 twister in Joplin, Missouri, that killed 161 people.
That tornado resulted in $3 billion worth of damage, said Doak.
Oklahoma City lies inside the so-called "Tornado Alley" stretching from South Dakota to central Texas, an area particularly vulnerable to tornadoes.
Images of the destruction left behind by the Oklahoma tornado
A woman surveys the wreckage of her home in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City. © AFP
The tornado has been given an EF5 ranking on the Fujita scale used to measure tornado strength - the highest category possible. © AFP
As of Wednesday, the official death toll from the tornado stood at 24, with many more injured. © AFP
Extensive rescue efforts have been underway since the tornado struck on Monday, with emergency services seaching through the rubble for bodies and survivors. © AFP
Hundreds of homes, as well as schools, businesses and a hospital were destroyed by the huge tornado. © AFP
US President Barack Obama has declared a "major disaster" in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts. © AFP
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-05-22