Crews Search for Survivors in Oklahoma After Tornado

21 May

20130521_TORNADO-slide-8ED4-copy-articleLarge-v2— Emergency crews and volunteers continued to work Tuesday morning in a frantic search for survivors of a huge tornado that ripped through parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs, killing dozens of people and flattening whatever was in its path, including a hospital and at least two schools.

 An image provided by the television station KFOR-TV shows homes flattened outside Moore, Okla., on Monday. 

Much of the tornado damage appeared to be in the suburb of Moore, where rescue workers struggled to make their way through debris-clogged streets and around downed power lines to those who are feared trapped under mountains of rubble.

The risk of tornadoes throughout the region remained high Tuesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman.

On Monday night, Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said at least 51 people had died and 40 more bodies were on their way, but on Tuesday, Ms. Elliott said that count “is no longer accurate.”

As of Tuesday morning, the medical examiner had confirmed 24 deaths, she said.

On Monday night, hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.

Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore was reduced to a pile of twisted metal and toppled walls. Rescue workers werevideo-tc-130521-tornado-oklaho-thumbWide able to pull several children from the rubble, and on Tuesday, as a chilly rain swept through the area, crews were still struggling to cut through fallen beams and clear debris.

“The sun is starting to rise,” said Jayme Shelton, a Moore spokesman. “We are still definitely in search-and-rescue mode.”

At Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, on the border with Moore, cars were thrown through the facade and the roof was torn off.

“Numerous neighborhoods were completely leveled,” Sgt. G Oklahoma Cityary Knight of the Police Department said by telephone on Monday night. “Neighborhoods just wiped clean.”

He said debris and damage to roadways, along with heavy traffic, were hindering emergency responders as they raced to the affected areas.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in Moore said emergency workers were struggling to assess the damage.

“Please send us your prayers,” she said.

President Obama declared a federal disaster in the area late Monday, freeing federal aid to flow to Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie Counties in Oklahoma. He is scheduled to address the nation regarding the tornado Tuesday morning, the White House said.

Shortly before midnight, the area near the Plaza Towers school was eerily quiet and shrouded in darkness from a widespread power outage. Local authorities and F.B.I. agents patrolled the streets, restricting access to the school.

Half a mile from the school, the only sounds on Southwest Fourth Street were of barking dogs and tires on wet pavement littered with debris. Hovering in the sky, a helicopter shined a spotlight on the damaged neighborhoods. In the darkness, the century-old Moore Cemetery was a ghostly wreck: women’s clothing and blankets clung to the branches of tilting trees and twisted sheets of metal ripped from nearby buildings or homes were strewn among the graves. Many headstones had been pushed flat to the ground by the wind.

Brooke Cayot, a spokeswoman for Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said 58 patients had come in by about 9 p.m. An additional 85 were being treated at Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

“They’ve been coming in minute by minute,” Ms. Cayot said.

The tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m., 16 minutes after the first warning went out, and traveled for 20 miles, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. It was on the ground for 40 minutes, she said. It struck the town of Newcastle and traveled about 10 miles to Moore, a populous suburb of Oklahoma City.

Ms. Pirtle said preliminary data suggested that it was a Category 4 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5. A definitive assessment will not be available until Tuesday, she said.

Moore was the scene of another huge tornado, in May 1999, in which winds reached record speeds of 302 m.p.h., and experts said severe weather was common in the region this time of year.

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