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Oklahoma rescuers face grim day of rising death toll after tornado

May 21, 2013|By Michael Muskal and Matt Pearce

MOORE, Okla. — Flashlights flickered over piles of rubble while floodlights illuminated the extent of damage as rescuers frantically tore through wrecked buildings hoping to finding survivors after one of the worst tornadoes in history cut a 20-mile-long scar through this area.

This gutted community of about 41,000 people greeted dawn on Tuesday with the grim task of recovering bodies while wishing that the death toll would not increase. Initially officials said at least 51 people were dead but the Oklahoma Medical Examiners Office revised that number downward, saying it had received 24 bodies.

More than 120 people were treated for injuries, but that number could also change.

At least seven children were among the dead. They were found at the Plaza Towers Elementary School, one of as many as five schools that took the brunt of the storm. The Plaza Towers roof was ripped off while walls were dotted with holes, and the playground was turned into a landscape of broken twists of metal where play equipment once stood.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

“We say to those parents that our hearts are broken for you,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said on “CBS This Morning,” one of several early television appearances she made. “We know you’re suffering tremendously and we’ll do every single thing we can to help the families get back on their feet. Certainly we’re still in the rescue-and-recovery stage right now. We’ve tried to go through every single home.”

A major hospital, many businesses and whole neighborhoods of homes were destroyed by the storm, which ground its way through the area  Monday afternoon. Even as officials said that more than 100 people had been found safe overnight, Fallin warned that there was likely to be more bad news. She recalled the 1999 tornado that killed 46 and caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Monday’s tornado was “worse than May 3, 1999, I believe,” the governor said. “If you walk through the neighborhoods, if you go through some of these business areas and certainly when you see the schools, it’s just heaps of debris. You can’t really even tell what was in that particular location. It would be incredible if anybody survived in those structures that were destroyed during this terrible storm.”

Officials at the National Weather Service estimated the tornado at an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale and said that it carried winds up to 200 miles per hour. The track, which followed the 1999 storm, ran about 20 miles, beginning west of Newcastle and crossing through Oklahoma City's southwestern edge by about 3 p.m. Monday. It smashed through Moore and was larger than half a mile wide as it chewed up buildings, vehicles and streets.

“This storm moved so fast,” Moore police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis told Fox News Channel. He estimated that officials had 15 minutes from when the tornado formed to when it hit the Plaza Towers school — too little time for parents to get their children.

“The school locked down and did the best it could,” he said.

Rescuers with heavy equipment and trained dogs combed through the rubble of the school and the surrounding area. State officials said more than 100 people were found alive overnight, many having sought shelter.

More than 80 National Guard members were called in to assist with rescue operations and extra Highway Patrol officers were brought in as well. A cordon of officers and troops kept people, even homeowners, out of the area.

“I don't know what's going to happen,” said Bridgette Wallace, a nurse from southern Oklahoma City, who arrived earlier in the afternoon to help in the search and was waiting for another neighborhood to check.

Monday’s tornado was at least the fourth to hit the area since 1998. The worst was in 1999, where winds clocked at better than 300 miles per hour roared through. Monday’s death toll was approaching 1999, and the cost of rebuilding was expected to be in the billions of dollars.

President Obama has already declared a state of emergency for five Oklahoma counties, a move that includes aid for temporary housing and home repairs as well as helping uninsured individuals recover.

Even as the cleanup continued, the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather for Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes for parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Two years ago, a tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more. That tornado, on May 22, 2011, is considered the deadliest in the United States since modern 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.

Pearce reported from Moore, Okla., and Muskal from Los Angeles.

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