US president Barack Obama has promised that the federal government would get everything needed “right away” to victims of the devastating tornado that struck on Monday afternoon, killing at least 24 people.
“The people of Moore should know their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes,” Mr Obama said at the White House a day after the most destructive storm in the US since the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, which killed 161 people and caused almost $3bn of damage.
“There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms, and classrooms, and in time we’re gonna need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community,” the President declared.
In fact, however, while the physical damage left by the twister, packing winds of 200mph or more, has yet to be assessed, the human toll appears to be lower than at first feared. With many people still unaccounted for, the total of 24 deaths – including nine children – may yet climb, but the final figure is likely to fall well short of earlier estimates of as many as 91.
By noon today, emergency workers who had toiled through the night had pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of flattened homes, schools and a hospital in Moore, a town of 55,000 people 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. More than 230 people were injured, and 120 were being treated at nearby hospitals, about 50 of them children, according to local officials. Last night more bad weather in the area, including hail, heavy rain and lightning, and the risk of further tornados, was complicating the rescuers’ work.
The scale of the calamity drew sympathy from far beyond the US. The Queen and Pope Francis were among world figures who sent condolences, while in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner ordered flags on Capitol Hill to be flown at half-mast. “This was the storm of storms,” Oklahoma City mayor, Mick Cornett, said.
The devastation occurred despite what appears to have been a highly efficient performance of the local weather service, in a region known as “Tornado Alley” for the frequency of lethal storms that batter the area.
A tornado warning was in effect for 16 minutes even before the storm first touched down. That is three minutes more than the average tornado alert, allowing those threatened to take refuge in basements – or more dangerously – to drive away from a storm whose path can swiftly change.
But in the case of a monster tornado, on the ground for 40 minutes and cutting an apocalyptic swathe 20 miles long and up to two miles wide, even the most careful precautions are sometimes not enough. Monday’s storm, moreover, was a 4 on the Fujita scale used to measure a tornado’s intensity, the second highest level, with winds of 200mph or more.
“People did the right thing,” said US Congressman Tom Cole, who lives in Moore. He added that the Plaza Towers school – where seven of the nine children died – was structurally the strongest building in the area. “But if you’re in front of an F4 or an F5 there is no good thing to do if you’re above ground. It’s just tragic.”
Monday’s was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. The following year an even more powerful F5, with winds of 250mph or more, killed 36 people. A tornado also struck in 2003.
10 deadliest tornadoes in the United States since 1900
695 deaths March 18, 1925, in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
216 deaths April 5, 1936, in Tupelo, Mississippi.
203 deaths April 6, 1936, in Gainesville, Georgia.
181 deaths April 9, 1947, in Woodward, Oklahoma.
158 deaths May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Missouri.
143 deaths April 24, 1908, in Amite, Louisiana, and Purvis, Mississippi.
116 deaths June 8, 1953, in Flint, Michigan.
114 deaths May 11, 1953 in Waco, Texas.
114 deaths May 18, 1902 in Goliad, Texas.
103 deaths March 23, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, AP
A tornado of rare power, that may be among the largest and most destructive in US history, has roared through an Oklahoma City suburb, killing at least 51 people, flattening neighbourhoods with winds up to 200mph and destroying at least one school.