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Strength Of OK Twister Upgraded, Search For Survivors Continues

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Cars lie around the northeast corner of Plaza Towers Elementary school after it was damaged by a tornado May 21, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma. (credit: Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Cars lie around the northeast corner of Plaza Towers Elementary school after it was damaged by a tornado May 21, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma. (credit: Brett Deering/Getty Images)

OKLAHOMA (CBSDFW.COM) – Just after 3:00 p.m. (CST) officials with the National Weather Service upgraded the classification of the deadly tornado that struck in Moore, Oklahoma to an EF-5, the strongest storm rank on the enhanced Fujita scale.

According to Keli Pirtle, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Norman, Oklahoma, the intensity of the storm was deemed even stronger after teams assessed damage on the ground. Initial estimates had the tornado strength at EF-4. The now EF-5 ranking means the Oklahoma tornado has winds in excess of 200 mph.

As of Tuesday afternoon the revised death toll from the state medical examiner’s office stands at 24 people killed – nine of those children. Estimates had the number killed as high as 91 but apparently, in the heat of search and rescue, some victims were counted twice.

Tuesday morning President Obama addressed the country concerning the devastation the moved across the midsection of the Sooner state. “In an instant, neighborhoods were destroyed.  Dozens of people lost their lives. Many more were injured.  And among the victims were young children, trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school,” he said.

Homeowners in south Oklahoma City and in the city of Moore will continue to sift through what’s left of their property. A tornado with winds of more than 200 miles per hour tore a path through the area that in parts is estimated to have been as much as 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long.

The tornado that hit Moore, a city of some 56,000 people just 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, is believed to have been on the ground for some 40 minutes. Devastation from the storm left interstates and side streets blocked by downed power lines, dead livestock and debris that included cars, trees, and entire sections of homes and businesses.

One of the hardest hit buildings was the Moore Medical Center. There were reportedly some 30 patients inside when the twister hit — all survived. Dan Halyburton, with the American Red Cross, is in Moore near the hospital and said, “That building is made out of steel and concrete, and metal two-by-fours and it just looks like it was completely raked by a giant rake. In the middle of the parking lot there are about 25 cars. It looks like they boxed them together with a bulldozer and then dropped five or six on top of that pile.” In addition to patients at the 46-bed acute care hospital, no medical staff or hospital workers were injured.

The search and rescue effort, which continued through the night, has first responders searching for survivors, both children and adults. The storm path sent the massive twister over two elementary schools.

Teachers and students at Briarwood Elementary took cover as the storm caused severe damage to the building. Part of the roof was tore off of the school and debris littered the area around it, but no one was killed at the location.

It was a far worse situation one-mile away at Plaza Towers Elementary. Officials in Oklahoma say fallen walls at Plaza Towers basically fell one on top on another and were “pancaked”. Once rescuers arrived they formed a human chain and passed survivors from the school to a triage area in the parking lot. On Tuesday, a spokesperson with the Oklahoma City medical examiner’s office said of the 24 confirmed dead seven of them were children found at the school.

Gas leaks are still a concern as teams search by hand and with heavy equipment. At daybreak new search-and-rescue teams arrived, taking over for the estimated 200 people who searched all night. Halyburton said the Red Cross is helping first responders as best they can. “When they’re in there working they don’t want to leave, so the Red Cross trucks come in, we stop by with water, Gatorade, [and] a sandwich. It’s gratifying to be able to provide that kind of service.”

Interestingly, Oklahoma residents with storm shelters are required to register them, so officials have exact GPS locations to search and hopefully find residents safe, but trapped inside by debris.

Monday evening President Obama issued a disaster declaration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency has made federal disaster aid available to the State of Oklahoma.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time the city of Moore has dealt with a devastating twister. Another EF-5 tornado tore through the city on May 3, 1999. Thirty-six people were killed in that storm and hundreds were injured. That storm had the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface, at 318 miles per hour.

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