Pre-dawn emergency workers searched feverishly for survivors in the rubble of homes, primary schools and a hospital in an Oklahoma City suburb ravaged by a massive tornado on Monday afternoon feared to have killed up to 91 people and injured more than 200 residents.
The 3km wide tornado tore through the town of Moore outside Oklahoma City, trapping victims beneath the rubble as one elementary school took a direct hit and another was destroyed.
Reporters were cleared back from Plaza Towers Elementary School, which sustained a direct hit, Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said.
TV images showed firefighters from more than a dozen fire departments working under bright spotlights to find survivors.
US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore after the deadliest US tornado since one killed 161 people in Joplin, Missouri, two years ago.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, beside them, for as long as it takes,” Obama said yesterday at the White House in Washington.
There was an outpouring of grief on the Plaza Towers’ Facebook page, with messages from around the country, including one pleading simply: “Please find those little children.”
A separate Facebook page set up to reunite people in the area hit by a tornado on Sunday with their belongings and pets also showed entries for Moore residents overnight.
Another elementary school, homes and a hospital were among the buildings leveled in Moore, leaving residents of the town of about 50,000 people stunned at the devastation and loss of life. Many residents were left without power and water.
The Oklahoma medical examiner said 20 of the 91 expected to have been killed were children. The office had already confirmed 51 dead and had been told during the night by emergency services to expect 40 more bodies found in the debris, but had not yet received them.
At least 60 of the 240 people injured were children, area hospitals said.
The National Weather Service assigned the twister a preliminary ranking of 4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the second-most powerful category of tornado, with winds up to 320kph.
Witnesses said the tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the area on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as a 5, meaning it had winds of more than 320kph.
The 1999 event in Oklahoma ranks as the third-costliest tornado in US history, having caused more than US$1 billion in damage at the time, or more than US$1.3 billion in today’s US dollars. Only the devastating Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.
“I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them,” Pope Francis said in a Twitter message.
Jeff Alger, 34, who works in the Kansas oil fields on a fracking crew, said his wife Sophia took their children out of school when she heard a tornado was coming, and then fled Moore and watched it flatten the town from a few kilometers away.
“They didn’t even have time to grab their shoes,” said Alger, who has five children aged four to 11.
The storm tore part of the roof off of his home. He was with his wife at Norman Regional Hospital to have glass and other debris removed from his wife’s bare feet.
Moore was devastated with debris everywhere, street signs gone, lights out, houses destroyed and vehicles tossed about as if they were toys.
The dangerous storm system threatened several southern Plains states with more twisters. The area around Moore faced the risk of severe thunderstorms yesterday, which could hamper rescue efforts.
Speaking outside Norman Regional Hospital, Ninia Lay, 48, said she huddled in a closet through two storm alerts before the tornado hit on the third.
“I was hiding in the closet and I heard something like a train coming,” she said under skies still flashing with lightning.
The house was flattened and Lay was buried in the rubble for two hours until her husband Kevin, 50, and rescuers dug her out.
“I thank God for my cellphone, I called my husband for help,” she said.