A huge and incredibly powerful storm – dubbed “the worst tornado in the history of the world” by an Oklahoma meteorologist – tore through suburban Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon. Various reports put its size at anywhere from half a mile, to almost two miles, wide. It was packing 200-mile-per-hour winds, putting it at EF-4 on the five-step tornado intensity scale, and it moved across the community of Moore for an agonizing forty minutes.
Early hopeful reports were followed by the horrifying discovery that the tornado had obliterated an elementary school. At least 51 people are confirmed dead, including at least 20 children, according to Fox News, with over 120 injuries. The death toll seems likely to rise as rescue workers move through the rubble. The Washington Post reports “at least 40 more bodies were expected, in addition to the 51 people already confirmed dead.”
Their work will be made more difficult by the destruction of modern communications networks in the area, as surveyed by Fox News:
Search and rescue crews were looking for anyone who may be trapped in the rubble. Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cell phone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.
Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. She also spoke with President Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Tragically, the Monday storm followed almost the same track as an even more powerful tornado in 1999, making it the fourth tornado to hit Moore over the past 15 years. Three other twisters hit central Oklahoma over the course of yesterday afternoon, including one that killed two elderly residents of a mobile-home park in Shawnee.
Local news teams caught some amazing video of the storm as it rolled slowly through the area:
A horrifying account of the devastation at the Plaza Towers Elementary school, where several children reportedly remain unaccounted for:
Crews continued their desperate search-and-rescue effort throughout the night at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm had ripped off the school’s 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 were among the dead, but several students were pulled out alive earlier Monday from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some of the students looked dazed while others appeared terrified.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school, where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.
“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” he said.
More from CNN:
At one point, an estimated 24 children were missing from the school, but some later turned up at nearby churches. It’s unclear how many may still be trapped in the wreckage, and how many are dead or alive.
A father of a third-grader still missing sat quietly on a stool outside. Tears cascaded from his face as he waited for any news.
Even parents of survivors couldn’t wrap their minds around the tragedy.
“I’m speechless. How did this happen? Why did this happen?” Norma Bautista asked. “How do we explain this to the kids? … In an instant, everything’s gone.”
CNN also reports that the tornado destroyed Moore Medical Center, making it necessary to rush injured adults and children to other hospitals. Several doctors reported took shelter inside a freezer to survive the destruction of the Moore hospital. Another report tells of rescuers finding a mother and her 7-month-old baby hiding in a freezer, “but they didn’t survive.”
“You can’t fathom it unless you put your eyes on it,” said Fairview Fire Department chief Greg Harmon, quoted by USA Today. “We’re seeing foundations that have been completely cleaned, two houses smashed onto each other. You see total destruction on one side of the street and houses on the other that aren’t really touched.”
Fairview is 120 miles away, but Harmon and five volunteers raced to Moore to help: “We wanted to do whatever we could. That’s the bottom line.” Among his team’s discoveries: a “refrigerator that had been filled with home insulation ??? the storm apparently whipped open the door, stuffed it with fiberglass and then blew shut the door again.”
USA Today also put together a handy list of charities active in the tornado-ravaged area, with contact information, for those who would like to help.
The storm system that spawned this tornado remains active, and may produce more across an even wider area today. Let’s hope and pray we see nothing like the devastation and loss of life in Moore.
One moment of hope amid the devastation came when a survivor named Barbara Garcia was interviewed in the wreckage of her home, where she believed her dog had been killed. A member of the news crew spotted movement in the wreckage, and the dog was discovered alive. “I thought God had just answered one prayer to let me be OK, but He answered both of them,” said Garcia.
Update: All across Moore, American flags are found in the wreckage, and raised high.
Update: Some unexpected good news: while some outlets were already reporting a revised death toll of 91 and counting, it turns out that the medical examiner’s office made an error in the original estimate, and the official death toll has actually been lowered to 24, including 7 children. However, officials caution that more bodies may yet be recovered.
Update: Another moving image of a flag rising over the devastation: