Obama pledges support for Oklahoma as toll revised down to 24

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has said that authorities will work "as long as it takes" to deal with the devastation delivered by the massive hurricane that hit a heavily populated suburb of Oklahoma city.

After declaring a major disaster, the President made an address this afternoon saying: "The people of Moore should know that their country shall remain on the ground, there for them and beside them as long as it takes.

"There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, and bedrooms, and classrooms. In time we'll have to refill those spaces with love, support and community."

Mr Obama said that America's prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, and the rescue services would "back up those prayers with deeds."

"What they [the people of Oklahoma] can be sure of that Americans from every corner of this country will be right there with them, opening their homes and their hearts."

Mr Obama said that federal help would be provided in the area, while relief teams from nearby states would be taking part in the clear-up. He said that the University of Oklahoma would be providing accommodation for displaced families.

The monstrous twister that may be remembered as among the largest and most destructive in American history roared through Moore, cutting a swathe as much as two miles wide and flattening homes, shops, hospitals and, perhaps most devastatingly, schools that had no time to evacuate.

The Oklahoma chief medical examiner confirmed 24 people had died as a result of the tornado. An earlier, significantly higher, figure had been revised down after the office said a number of victims had been counted more than once. Many of those killed were from a single elementary school that had been ripped apart by the twister, which was said to have sustained circulating winds of 200mph or more. Debris reportedly dropped like rain in Tulsa, 100 miles away.

Seven children among those killed at the Plaza Towers school were confirmed as having drowned after the plumbing system burst. The children are believed to have been unable to escape water flowing out of pipes as they lay trapped beneath rubble at the time of the burst.

At least 240 people were reported to have been injured, according to local hospitals, with at least 60 of them children. 10 of those injured are said to be critical, with officials earlier stating the death toll may rise.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. He met with his disaster response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, today before delivering the statement on the devastating tornado.

The tornado, which for now is measured as an EF4 but might yet be upgraded to a top-level EF5, ploughed through the community of Moore just to the south of Oklahoma City in the early hours of the afternoon. That in itself was unusual. It is more usual for twisters to strike in the evening hours, when schools, at least, have emptied out. The first warnings were issued at about 3.40 pm local time. The twister began its deadly march about eight minutes later.

News network choppers watched as the giant funnel cloud marched with unbearable slowness as commentators speculated where it was landing, block by block. Suddenly, as the nation watched, the funnel 'roped out', the moment when the twister dies.  It was then only a few minutes before same helicopters turned into the area to see what kind of damage had been done. Very quickly, the terrifying of the carnage became clear.

As ever with tornadoes, the distance between destroyed and untouched could have been measured in feet. But structures that fell on the wrong side of the dividing line were often shredded. As emergency crews rushed in a first, desperate focus of activity was the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where 75 young students and staff were taking shelter when the twister hit. Almost nothing of the school building was left standing when it had passed.

James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school, where his five-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. The students were apparently sent to a toilet to take cover.

A man with a megaphone stood near a Catholic church last night, calling out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons' and daughters' names.

Don Denton hadn't heard from his two sons since the tornado hit the town, but the man who has endured six back surgeries and walks with a severe limp said he walked about two miles as he searched for them.  As reports of the storm came in, Denton's 16-year-old texted him, telling him to call.

"I was trying to call him, and I couldn't get through," Denton said. Eventually, Denton said, his sons spotted him in the crowd. They were fine, but upset to hear that their grandparents' home was destroyed.

As dusk began to fall, heavy equipment was rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors. Because the ground was muddy, bulldozers and front-end loaders were getting stuck. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.

Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.

Tiffany Thronesberry said she heard from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, shortly after the tornado struck. "I got a phone call from her screaming, 'Help! Help! I can't breathe. My house is on top of me!"' Thronesberry said. Thronesberry hurried to her mother's house, where first responders had already pulled her out. Her mother was hospitalized for treatment of cuts and bruises.

The tornado also destroyed the city hospital and numerous businesses. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop. All of my employees were in the vault," Lewis said. Lewis, who was also the mayor of Moore when the strongest tornado on record whipped the city in 1999, said the most recent storm won't deter the community from rebuilding.

Chris Calvert saw the menacing tornado from about a mile away. "I was close enough to hear it," he said. "It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it." Even though his subdivision is a mile from the tornado's path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa Claus' lap in his yard.

Last night, rescue crews were swarming across the heaps of rubbish that the school had been reduced to, moving gingerly, listening for signs of life below and trying not to dislodge debris that might hurt anyone buried beneath.  There was concern that as many as 25 pupils were still not accounted for as darkness fell.  But in those few hours of daylight that rescuers had left several of the children were successfully pulled from the rubble alive.

"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," said James Rushing, who had rushed to the school moments before the tornado hit.  His five-year-old foster son was enrolled in class there.  Children who survived spoke of how teachers had lied down on top of them to offer some modicum of protection.

In May of 1999, the same Oklahoma City suburb was hit by a tornado so powerful it produced the fastest winds ever recorded on the surface of the Earth - just over 300 MPH. It is meanwhile exactly two years since a single tornado killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, just the other side of the Oklahoma state line.

A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City's rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.

Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system. The  powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed Moore in May 1999. That storm produced the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth's surface - 302 mph. 

Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Missouri, said it's unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003. Oklahoma City has had more tornado strikes than any other city in the United States," the city government's website says.

The devastation in Oklahoma came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more. Yesterday, Joplin organized a team of about a dozen police and firefighters to assist in Moore. Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said his community remembers the assistance it received in 2011 and feels an obligation to lend a hand in Moore.

That May 22, 2011 tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Michigan, when 116 people died.

Country music star Toby Keith, who grew up in Moore, said his hometown would persevere. "Hometown got hit for the gazillionth time. Rise again Moore Oklahoma," Keith tweeted yesterday evening.

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