Medical examiner revises Oklahoma tornado death toll—now say 24 dead including 7 children

Posted at 12:03 PM, May 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-21 13:54:10-04

Moore, Oklahoma (CNN) — Amid downed power lines, hissing gas pipes and immense devastation, rescuers searched “board by board” Tuesday for survivors and victims of a massive tornado that pulverized a vast swath of the Oklahoma City suburbs.

It was a daunting task. The Monday afternoon storm carved a trail through the area as much as two miles wide and 17 miles long, officials said. 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 state medical examiner’s office said 24 people were confirmed dead, including nine children. Earlier reports of at least 51 deaths were erroneous, said Amy Elliot, chief administrative officer for the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. More than 200 people were injured.

At least 100 people have been pulled alive from the rubble by rescuers.

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.

“This is a massive tornado and it’s a large area that has been struck,” she said.

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.

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb likened the destruction to a “two-mile-wide lawnmower blade going over a community.”

Police, firefighters, volunteers and nearly 180 National Guard troops joined forces Tuesday in searching the rubble and securing areas hit by the storm. Texas sent an elite 80-member urban search team as well, and the American Red Cross sent 25 emergency response vehicles.

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.