WASHINGTON/MOORE, OKLAHOMA – A monstrous tornado at least 800 meters wide roared through the suburbs of Oklahoma City on Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds of up to 320 kph. At least 91 people were killed, including at least 20 children, and officials said the death toll is expected to rise.
The ferocious storm — less than 1 percent of all tornadoes reach such wind speeds — ripped through the suburb of Moore in a Midwest region of the U.S. known as Tornado Alley.
The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 15 km south of Oklahoma City. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside. Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at the elementary school, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.
A second elementary school, Briarwood, was also hit but did not appear to have sustained casualties.
The National Weather Service estimated that the tornado reached up to 800 meters wide and was an EF-4 on the enhanced five-point Fujita scale, the second most powerful type of twister.
More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. And search-and-rescue efforts were to continue throughout Monday night.
Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, said early Tuesday that officials could see as many as 40 more fatalities from the tornado in addition to the 51 already confirmed dead. She said at least 20 children were among the confirmed dead.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.
Fallin also spoke with President Barack Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. “Hearts are broken” for parents looking for their children, Fallin said.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal. Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled alive from the rubble. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.
As dusk began to fall, heavy equipment was brought in and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors.
Because the ground was muddy, bulldozers and front-end loaders were getting stuck. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.
Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.
The tornado also destroyed the city hospital and numerous businesses.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop. “All of my employees were in the vault,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who was also the mayor of Moore when the strongest tornado on record whipped the city in 1999, said the most recent storm will not deter the community from rebuilding.
He said this year’s twister was bigger than one that hit in 1999, though its winds were not as strong. Lewis said the cleanup has already started.
Chris Calvert saw the menacing tornado from more than 1 km away.
“I was close enough to hear it,” he said. “It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it.”
Even though his subdivision was more than 1 km from the tornado’s path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa Claus’ lap in his yard.
A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City’s rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.
Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system.
Monday’s powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed Moore in May 1999. That storm produced the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth’s surface — 486 kph.
Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Missouri, said it’s unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path.
It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003.
Oklahoma City has had more tornado strikes than any other city in the United States,” the city government’s website says.