A day after tornado, search for survivors, bodies goes on in Oklahoma

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by Chris Patterson

MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Search-and-rescue crews with dogs went through smashed houses and crushed cars on Tuesday, looking for signs of life a day after a monster tornado pulverized a vast swath of suburbs of Oklahoma City.

No new survivors or bodies have been found since the early hours after the tornado carved a trail as much as a mile wide and 17 miles long on Monday afternoon.

At least 24 people, including nine children, have been killed, according to the state medical examiner's office. More than 230 people were injured, according to authorities.

Earlier reports of at least 51 deaths were erroneous, said Amy Elliot, chief administrative officer for the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. In the chaotic aftermath of the tornado, Elliot said it appeared some of the dead were counted twice.

But Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said the death toll could still rise. She said some bodies may have been taken to funeral homes without the government's knowledge.

At least 100 people were pulled alive from the rubble by rescuers in the early hours.

Damage assessments conducted Tuesday showed the tornado was 1.3 miles wide and packed winds, at times, between 200 and 210 miles per hour, making it an EF5 -- the strongest category of tornadoes measured, the National Weather Service said Tuesday.

'Sticks and bricks'

All that remained in some places were "sticks and bricks," Fallin told reporters, calling the storm one of the "most horrific storms and disasters that this state has ever faced."

Hardest hit was Moore, Oklahoma -- a suburban town of about 56,000 and the site of eerily similar twisters in 1999 and again four years later.

The scene -- block after block of flattened homes and businesses, the gutted remains of a hospital and hits on two elementary schools -- left even seasoned veterans of Oklahoma's infamous tornadoes reeling.

The devastation was so complete, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said city officials were racing to print new street signs to help guide rescuers and residents through a suddenly twisted and unfamiliar landscape.

A search-and-rescue team was sent from nearby Tinker Air Force Base, which also provided search lights, vehicles and water trucks, while neighboring Texas sent an elite 80-member urban search team. The American Red Cross sent 25 emergency response vehicles.

Rescue crews were expected to complete an initial search for victims by late Tuesday, and then would do a second and third round of searches, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird told CNN.

"We will be through every damaged piece of property in this city at least three times," Bird told reporters. "And we hope to be done by dark tonight."

Terri Watkins, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman who described Tuesday's search as "board by board," said it was far too soon to account for the devastation of the storm.

Police, firefighters, volunteers and nearly 180 National Guard troops joined forces Tuesday in searching the rubble and securing areas hit by the storm.

The weather wasn't cooperating with their efforts: National Weather Service crews surveying the damage in Moore reported rain, half-inch hail and 45-mph winds over the debris field.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol asked motorists to steer clear of Interstate 35 near Moore to free up lanes for disaster response resources streaming into the area.

And so many people were showing up to volunteer that authorities had to plead with would-be rescuers to stay away.

Path of devastation

The storm struck near Newcastle, Oklahoma, at 2:56 p.m. Monday -- 16 minutes after the first warnings went out, according to the National Weather Service.

Moore residents had another 30 to 40 minutes before the massive storm entered the western part of the city, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.

Among the many buildings struck by the storm were two schools: Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementaries.

Of the nine children killed by the storm, authorities said seven died at Plaza Towers Elementary School where the tornado ripped the roof off and collapsed walls.

About 75 students and staff members were hunkered down in Plaza Towers when the tornado struck, CNN affiliate KFOR reported.

At one point, an estimated 24 children were missing from the school, but some later turned up at nearby churches.

On Monday, 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."

Across town, Moore Medical Center took a direct hit.

"Our hospital has been devastated," said Lewis, the Moore mayor. "We had a two-story hospital, now we have a one. And it's not occupiable."

So 145 of the injured were rushed to three other area hospitals.

That number includes 45 children taken to the children's hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, Dr. Roxie Albrecht said. Injuries ranged from minor to severe, including impalement and crushing injuries.

Still digging

James Dickens, a gas-and-oil pipeline worker, grabbed his hard had and joined other rescuers at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

"I felt it was my duty to come help," he said Tuesday after a long night of searching.

"As a father, it's humbling. It's heartbreaking to know that we've still got kids over there that's possibly alive, but we don't know."

Moore, and the Oklahoma City region, are far too familiar with disaster. In 1995, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

In 1999 and then again in 2003, Moore took direct hits from tornadoes that took eerily similar paths to Monday's storm. The 1999 storm packed the strongest wind speeds in history, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb said.

"We're a tough state. This is a tough community," Lamb said. "There is hope. We always have hope. We always have faith."

President Barack Obama, pledging whatever federal aid Oklahoma would need, praised teachers who protected their students.

"If there is hope to hold on to -- not just in Oklahoma but around the country -- it's the knowledge that the good people there and in Oklahoma are better prepared for this type of storm than most," he said. "And what they can be certain of is that Americans from every corner of this country will be right there with them, opening our homes, our hearts, to those in need, because we're a nation that stands with our fellow citizens as long as it takes."

More trouble brewing

The storm system that spawned Monday's tornado and several other twisters Sunday isn't over yet.

Southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas, including Dallas, are under the gun for severe weather Tuesday. Those areas could see large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes.

A broader swath of the United States, from Texas to Indiana and up to Michigan, could see severe thunderstorms.

"We could have a round 3," CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera said. "Hopefully, it won't be as bad."

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