Rescue workers clawed through mountains of rubble in a frantic search for survivors — including dozens of missing children — as the death toll mounted after a mile-wide tornado flattened an Oklahoma City suburb, destroying whole neighborhoods and at least two schools.
Television images showed a swath of devastation 20 miles long in the suburb of Moore, with cars littered like toys, firefighters and police swarming over chunks of buildings and the town’s Plaza Towers Elementary School reduced to a pile of rubble. At least 37 people were killed, said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the state medical examiner’s office in Oklahoma City.
More than 75 students were in the Plaza school when the tornado struck, KFOR-TV reported. As many as 30 of the children may have been rescued, the station said. The search took a grim turn just before 7 p.m. local time (8 p.m. Eastern time), when authorities at the scene told reporters that there didn’t appear to be any more survivors, KFOR reported.
“They are still in the process of picking through the rubble to try to find survivors,” Jerry Lojka, a spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said in an interview. “We know it was on the ground for 40 minutes. It traveled across the entire city of Moore.”
“There are entire blocks that are wiped clean to the foundations,” Lojka said. ”It went through residential areas, business areas. We know a hospital is heavily damaged, two elementary schools are heavily damaged.”
The preliminary indications are that this was at least an EF-4 tornado, said Ryan Barnes, a weather service meteorologist in Norman, Oklahoma. An EF-4 has wind gust of 166 to 200 miles per hour for three seconds.
President Barack Obama spoke tonight with Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to offer assurances that the U.S. government is prepared to provide all available support to storm response efforts, according to a White House statement.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent an assistance team to the state operations center in Oklahoma City, and additional personnel and resources stand ready to be dispatched as necessary, the White House said in its statement.
“The President told Governor Fallin that the people of Oklahoma are in his and the First Lady’s thoughts and prayers,” the White House said in its statement.
Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City had nine patients in critical condition and nine more in serious condition as of 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Eastern time), KFOR reported. In the southeast part of the city, the storm knocked out a water treatment center, prompting warnings to residents not to drink from their taps.
Norman Regional Hospital officials asked all clinical staff to come in to help treat storm injuries, the Norman Transcript newspaper reported on its website. Thirteen patients were transported to the hospital’s two campuses in Norman, a city 10 miles south of Moore. The Moore Medical Center sustained major damage.
Oklahoma Representative James Lankford said there was a “tremendous amount of damage” along a 20-mile path through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City.
There are “so many power lines down, so much heavy debris, they can’t get heavy equipment” or fire trucks into “the center of the debris field,” the Republican lawmaker told reporters. “They are counting survivors at this point,” he said.
“I have not heard of the number of deaths,” Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an interview in Washington. “But I was there in 1999. Some said this worse than it was in ‘99.”
Authorities are searching for students in kindergarten and grades one through three at an elementary school who tried to take shelter in an interior hallway, he said. The storm was so intense that “you’ve got to be underground to be safe,” he said.
At least two people were killed Sunday and 39 injured as tornadoes struck Oklahoma, the Associated Press said. Two dozen tornado reports from Illinois to Oklahoma were logged by the storm center, according to the agency’s website.
The suburb of Moore was hit hard by a tornado in 1999. The storm had the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface.
In May 2011, the deadliest tornado since 1950, with winds of more than 200 miles per hour, flattened about one-third of Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people.
On May 3 and 4, 1999, at least 70 tornadoes touched down from Kansas to Texas, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Forty people were killed and 675 more were injured in Oklahoma, according to the storm center. The storms caused about $1.2 billion in damage. In addition, 5 people died and 100 were injured in Wichita, Kan.