22 May 2013

Search for tornado survivors winding down

10:15 pm on 22 May 2013

The fire chief in the Oklahoma suburb devastated by a huge tornado says he's almost certain no more bodies or survivors will be found from the rubble.

The death toll from the gigantic storm near Oklahoma City was lowered to 24, including nine children. At one point as many as 91 had been feared dead, but officials say in the chaos there had been some double-counting of fatalities.

The 3km-wide tornado tore through Moore outside the city on Monday afternoon, wiping out entire neighbourhoods and trapping victims beneath rubble.

Seven of the nine children who were killed died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit and did not have an underground shelter, but many more were pulled out from the rubble unhurt, Reuters reports.

Thunderstorms and lightning slowed the rescue effort on Tuesday, but emergency workers have pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital. About 240 people have been injured.

The director of Oklahoma's department of emergency management, said it was too early to say how many people are homeless - but clearly it is thousands, given the extent of the damage.

Disaster declared

US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local efforts.

"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes," Mr Obama said at the White House.

Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, said the whole town looked like a debris field and there was a danger of electrocution and fire from downed power lines and broken natural gas lines.

Basic infrastructure is already being repaired, but Oklahoma's governor Mary Fallin has warned that such was the intensity of the wind that some areas struck by the tornado are no longer identifiable.

The tornado has been upgraded to a rating of EF5, the category reserved for the most damaging tornados on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. It was initially rated an EF4.