MOORE, Okla. (May 21, 2013)—The massive tornado that hit Moore, Okla., Monday afternoon was an EF-5 storm with winds of at least 200 miles per hour, the National Weather Service said Tuesday.
An aerial view of the damage in Moore, Okla.
Spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said Tuesday the agency upgraded the tornado from an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale to an EF-5 based on what a damage assessment team saw on the ground.
The weather service uses the word "incredible" to describe the power of EF-5 storms.
The weather service says the tornado cut a path of destruction 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.
Pirtle said it was the first EF-5 tornado of 2013.
Earlier Tuesday Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin told reporters Tuesday that Moore will be rebuilt.
"We will rebuild and we will regain our strength,” she said.
The tornado claimed the lives of at least 24 people, nine of them children, the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office said Tuesday.
Authorities initially said that as many as 51 people were dead including 20 children, but spokeswoman Amy Elliott said Tuesday morning that she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm.
More than 230 victims including dozens of children were taken to hospitals and about 60 remained hospitalized Tuesday.
Norman Regional Hospital spokeswoman Melissa Herron said 20 of the more than 100 patients her hospital treated remained there Tuesday.
About 20 of the 90 patients treated at Integris Southwest Medical Center also remained in the hospital Tuesday, spokeswoman Brooke Cayot said.
OU Medical Center spokesman Scott Coppenbarger says his hospital has treated 93 people, including 59 children, since a round of storms Sunday. Twenty patients remained hospitalized Tuesday.
St. Anthony Hospital spokeswoman Sandra Payne says her hospital and affiliated facilities treated 36 patients, including 14 children.
Three of the children were transferred to other facilities.
The other patients were released.
Teams continued to search the rubble in the suburban city 10 miles south of Oklahoma City for the living and the dead.
Fallin said Tuesday she doesn't know how many people are still missing following the tornado.
Some of the search-and-rescue teams have been focusing their efforts on an elementary school where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal, as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Children from the school are among the dead, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other debris.
Moore's fire chief says officials are still trying to account for a handful of children who weren't found at the school but may have gone home early with their parents.
Among those combing through the wreckage are members of Texas Task Force 1, which was dispatched to Oklahoma after the deadly tornado struck.
The Texas rescue group includes about 70 first responders who specialize in victim extraction and medical treatment, search and rescue dogs, hazardous material specialists and structural engineers.
Last month the task force deployed to West after the fertilizer plant explosion that claimed 15 lives.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday he is instructing his disaster response team to get tornado victims in Oklahoma everything they need "right away."
Mr. Obama called the devastation that tore through the Oklahoma City suburbs "one of the most destructive tornadoes in history," even though he said the extent of the damage is still unknown.
Mr. Obama spoke Tuesday after an Oval Office briefing on the latest developments from his disaster response team and as Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate was heading to Oklahoma.
Mr. Obama declared a major disaster in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
The president offered prayers and said there's a long road of recovery ahead, but he said the victims won't travel alone and will have the resources they need.
Two elementary schools were damaged and students were trapped under rubble in one of them, Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.
Kindergarten, first and second grade students were also in the school, according to TV reports.
An Associated Press photographer saw rescuers pulling several children out of the wreckage of the school.
The victims were passed along a human chain and then taken to a triage area set up in the school's parking lot.
The school's fourth, fifth and sixth graders were evacuated before the tornado and were taken to a nearby church, TV reports indicated.
A witness said he helped take an injured teacher found lying on top of three students to a waiting ambulance.
Briarwood Elementary School, which is in Oklahoma City, was also damaged, but none of the students or educators there was seriously injured.
David Wheeler, whose 8-year-old son survived the tornado, says a teacher at Briarwood took students into a closet and shielded them with her arms as the twister collapsed the roof and starting lifting children upward.
He said the pull was so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces.
As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood Elementary were sent into the halls, but Wheeler said third-grade teacher Julie Simon thought it didn't look safe, so she ushered the children into a closet instead.
“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” he said.
Wheeler says he raced to the school through blinding rain and gusting wind. When he got there, he says "it was like the earth was wiped clean."
He eventually found his son, Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him.
His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head, but he was alive.
Monday evening the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily barred flights over the damaged schools at the request of rescuers who said the noise produced by circling news helicopters was interfering with their ability to hear possible cries for help from beneath the wreckage.
About 30 patients were evacuated from a badly damaged hospital in the area and patients were moved to other facilities.
Employees and patients there escaped injury.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported that people were trapped elsewhere in the rubble in the area.
Rescuers were going door-to-door through neighborhoods, searching homes and shelters.
Using satellite images, CNN estimated that about 3,500 homes are in the area hardest hit by the tornado.
An estimated 200,000 were in the path of the storm.
The state's National Guard was activated.
Southbound Interstate 35 was closed to traffic and all four lanes were reserved for emergency vehicles responding to the tornado scene.
A general call was issued for first responders, TV reports said, but officials later asked volunteers to wait because the area was already jammed.
The tornado first touched down in Newcastle, Okla. and moved east across southern Moore before crossing Interstate 35.
The Oklahoma House of Representatives canceled its afternoon sessions so Capitol employees and state lawmakers could take shelter.
Sirens blared and workers made their way to the Capitol basement.
Other storms were developing in the state that could also produce tornadoes, forecasters said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the state is ready to help.
"The images emerging from Oklahoma today are a terrifying reminder of how quickly the force of Mother Nature can devastate entire communities,” he said in a statement.
“Our hearts are heavy for all Americans who have been affected by the recent outbreak of storms across our country. State emergency assets in Texas will remain on alert and stand ready to help our neighbors any way we can,” he said.
White House officials said Monday that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to tell her that President Barack Obama has directed federal emergency management officials and his administration to ensure no needs go unmet.
Mr. Obama later called Fallin himself and told her that he directed the government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide any assistance she needs.
FEMA sent a special team to Oklahoma's emergency operations center to help out and dispatch resources.
Mr. Obama also told Fallin to contact him directly if the federal government can provide additional help.
Oklahoma City's southeastern suburbs were hit by a storm Sunday that produced a tornado in which two people died.
The suburb of Moore, where Monday's damage was concentrated, was hit hard by a tornado on May 3, 1999 that generated the highest winds ever recorded near the earth's surface.