UPDATE (10:25 a.m.): Officials now say 24 people are confirmed dead after Monday's massive twister. Seven of those are children. The medical examiner blamed higher initial reports on confusion and counting some victims twice. The death toll is expected to rise as crews search for survivors.
UPDATE (8:45 a.m.): Oklahoma officials say at least 20 of the 51 people known dead after a massive tornado ripped through the town of Moore are children. Search and rescue teams expect to pull 40 more bodies out of the rubble today, which would raise the death toll to 91. That number is not yet official.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency late Monday evening, making federal funding available to residents in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie. Moore, a town of about 41,000, is a suburb of Oklahoma City.
The twister reduced one elementary school to a heaping mound of debris and heavily damaged another while also flattening block after block of homes.
As of 5:30 a.m. today, many parents had yet to reunite with their children, who were at school when the tornado hit. They gathered at St. Andrews United Methodist Church to wait—students soon poured in, emotional as they hugged their families. Some waiting families, though, had no relief.
Deanna Wallace suddenly locked eyes with her 16-year-old daughter, who came quickly her way, jumping into her mother’s arms. But Tonya Sharp, who had been waiting with Wallace, didn’t see her daughter, a 17-year-old who has epilepsy. She worried her daughter hadn’t taken her medicine.
“I don’t know where she’s at,” Sharp said. Later, she spoke to officials who helped her register so she could be notified as soon as her daughter was found.
Shelli Smith had to walk miles to find her children. She was reunited with her 14-year-old daughter, Tiauna, around 5 p.m. Monday, but hadn’t yet seen her 16-year-old son, TJ, since he left for school that morning.
TJ’s phone had died, but he borrowed a classmate’s phone to tell his mother that he had survived. However, roadblocks prevented Smith from reaching him. She decided to park her car and start walking.
It took her three hours, but a little after sunset, she found him. She grabbed her son and squeezed him in a tight hug that lasted for several seconds. TJ hugged his sister, and then hugged his mom again.
The family had a long walk back to their car and then home, but she said she didn’t mind.
“I was trying to get him and they wouldn’t let me,” she said, adding later: “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to get my son.’”
UPDATE (Monday, May 20, 9:07 p.m.): The state medical examiner office reports that the death toll has risen to 51 in Oklahoma.
OUR EARLIER REPORT (Monday, May 20, 8:46 p.m.): A tornado at least a half-mile wide roared through Moore, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, Monday, destroying entire neighborhoods with winds reaching 200 mph, setting buildings on fire, and landing a direct blow on an elementary school. At least 37 people were reported killed.
The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful type of twister.
Authorities expect the death toll to rise as emergency crews reach the hardest-hit areas. At least 60 people were reported hurt, including more than a dozen children.
Rescuers mounted a desperate rescue effort at Plaza Towers Elementary School, pulling children from the debris and carrying them to a triage center.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin sent 80 National Guard members to assist with search-and-rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. She also spoke with President Barack Obama, who offered federal assistance.
At the school, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls, and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching tornado 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.
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 closely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the area in May 1999.