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Dozens Killed In Massive Tornado Near Oklahoma City

(This post was last updated at 11:45 p.m. ET.)

A massive tornado ripped through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City, Monday afternoon, killing at least 51 people, according to the state medical examiner's office.

The death toll was expected to rise.

Helicopter images showed large tracts of Moore, Okla., completely leveled by what the National Weather Service says was at least an EF-4 tornado with winds in excess of 166 mph. The tornado stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and traveled 20 miles.

On video aired by KFOR-TV, emergency personnel could be seen sifting through rubble, walking over mounds of twisted debris.

Joe Jolly, a Moore resident, told our Newscast unit that his neighborhood looked like a "war zone."

"I pretty much don't have much of a house right now," he said. "I'm still kind of in shock right now. It was intense... I really don't know what to say. It's a big deal, devastating."

KWTV in Oklahoma reports that hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed. Jayme Shelton, a public information officer for the Moore Police Department, told All Things Considered the tornado hit two schools and a hospital. Lance West, a reporter from KFOR, was in front of Plaza Tower Elementary School.

West said rescue workers were looking through what was left of the building, searching for children. One of them was pulled out alive and reunited with his parents.

"The walls are gone," West said. "Cinderblock walls that are ten inches thick are gone."

Earlier today, the National Weather Service issued a tornado emergency for the Oklahoma City metro area.

That's a rare warning from the weather service, which says it issues one "when a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage from a tornado is imminent or ongoing."

The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., is tweeting updates. At 4:22 p.m. ET. it warned that:

"the tornado is so large you may not realize it's a tornado. If you are in Moore, go to shelter NOW!"

This story is breaking, so the news will surely change quickly. We'll concentrate on information from news outlets and authorities at the scene and will update this post as we get more. KFOR is streaming its live coverage.

Update at 11:45 p.m. ET. Obama Signs Disaster Declaration

President Obama signed a disaster declaration late Monday, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area.

"The President's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie," a White House statement said.

The assistance can be in the form of grants for temporary housing and home repairs, "low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover."

Update at 9:00 p.m. ET. Search And Rescue Underway:

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, speaking at a news conference Monday evening, said rescue efforts were underway and officials were "working as quickly as we can".

"It will be dark pretty soon and we want to do everything we can to continue to look," she said.

Fallin said that rescue dogs were being called in to assist in the search.

"We do know there are fatalities, but we don't have a number count yet," she said.

Authorities said they expected a federal disaster declaration shortly.

"As you know, we've been through this before, but I can tell you that our citizens are resilient," Moore city manager Steve Eddy told reporters. "This city will recover and we will rebuild."

Update at 8:30 p.m. ET. Death Toll Rises To At Least 51:

At least 51 people have been killed, spokesperson Amy Elliot of the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner's Office, tells NPR. Elliot said the death toll is expected to rise.

Scott Coppenbarger, a spokesman for OU Medical Center, says the hospital has admitted 20 people for treatment due to tornado-related injuries — 12 adults and eight children.

Update at 7:39 p.m. ET. 'All Hands On Deck:'

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin tells KFOR that the state has "all hands on deck."

"We have called out everyone we can," she said, adding that she has activated the National Guard and that three out-of-state rescue teams are on the scene.

President Obama called Fallin to say the federal government "stands ready to provide all available assistance as the Governor's team responds to the storm and that he has directed his team to ensure that they are providing available resources as the response unfolds."

In a read-out of the president's call, the White House said:

"FEMA has deployed an Incident Management Assistance Team to the state emergency operations center in Oklahoma City to support state and local officials on the ground and additional personnel and resources stand ready to be dispatched as necessary. The President told Governor Fallin that the people of Oklahoma are in his and the First Lady's thoughts and prayers and, while his team will continue to keep him updated, he urged her to be in touch directly if there were additional resources the Administration could provide."

Update at 7:33 p.m. Three Dead:

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol says at least three people are dead.

Norman Regional Health System spokesperson Paula Price tells NPR they have received a total of 40 are injured.

Update at 7:17 p.m. ET. A History Of Okla. Tornadoes:

Scott has put together a post that details the history of tornadoes in Oklahoma. We also added these other posts:

-- Measuring The Power Of Deadly Tornadoes

-- VIDEO: A Time-Lapse Of The Tornado In Oklahoma

Update at 6:45 p.m. ET. Two Schools And A Hospital:

Jayme Shelton, a public information officer for the Moore Police Department, said the tornado had hit two schools and a hospital.

The Moore Medical Center, Shelton told All Things Considered, is closed because it was heavily damaged.

Shelton said they have not gotten any reports of casualties.

"What we need is people who are not in the area to stay out of the area," Shelton said.

Update at 6:19 p.m. ET. Dramatic Video:

David Massey, a Twitter user, has uploaded dramatic video of the tornado and the aftermath. NPR's Andy Carvin is collecting reaction, videos and images that are moving on social media.

Update at 6:13 p.m. ET. At Least An EF-4:

The National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, reports:

"Preliminary Rating of Newcastle-Moore Tornado at least EF-4 #okwx"

An EF-4 tornado has winds speeds of 166 to 200 mph. It is the second strongest rating for a tornado. For perspective, that is more severe than a category 5 hurricane, which has maximum sustained winds of more than 157 mph.

Update at 6:06 p.m. ET. 'Like A War Zone:'

Joe Wertz of NPR member station KGOU is in Moore. He described a devastating scene for our Newscast unit.

"Every window on every house is completely shattered," he said. "Police have shut down a lot of roads, there are power lines down, there's an air conditioning unit, roof material... there is just debris everywhere."

Joe Jolly, a Moore resident, told our Newscast unit that it looked like "war zone."

"I pretty much don't have much of a house right now," he said. "I'm still kind of in shock right now. It was intense... I really don't know what to say. It's a big deal, devastating."

Update at 5:37 p.m. ET. Search And Rescue:

KWTV in Oklahoma reports:

"Complete devastation in Moore, OK. Hundreds home homes and businesses destroyed. National Guard, EMSA, Police and Fire are in search and rescue mode."

Update at 5:23 p.m. ET. 1999 Tornado:

As we've told you, local meteorologists are comparing this tornado to one that ripped through the same area on May 3, 1999.

According to NOAA, that outbreak of tornadoes, which spanned a 38-mile path left "46 dead and 800 injured, more than 8,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and total property damage of nearly $1.5 billion."

The National Weather Service also put together a map comparing the two tornado paths.

Update at 5:22 p.m. ET. Danger Is Not Over:

One thing to keep in mind is that the danger is not over for the Oklahoma City metro. The National Weather service is reporting that a "dangerous storm may produce a tornado near Ryan and Sugden in Jefferson County."

Update at 5:20 p.m. ET. Elementary School Hit:

The AP just moved this alert:

"Police: Elementary school in Oklahoma City suburb takes direct hit from mile-wide tornado."

KFOR showed images of what they believed was Plaza Torres Elementary School. Very little was left of the building.

Update at 5:04 p.m. ET. Tornado Track:

The National Weather Service has put together a preliminary map of the tornado's tracks.

The NWS reports:

"Newcastle-Moore OKC Tornado was on the ground approx. 40 minutes. Tornado warning was in effect for 16 minutes before tornado developed."

Update at 4:44 p.m. ET. Devastated Neighborhoods:

Helicopter images of Moore, Oklahoma from KFOR show tracts of devastated neighborhoods. The images show homes missing their roofs, some of them completely leveled.

The reporter on the helicopter said one school was razed by a mile-wide tornado. KFOR showed people walking listlessly through the streets, surveying the damage and reuniting with their families.

Update at 4:38 p.m. ET. Reminiscent Of 1999 Tornado:

Kurt Gwartney of NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma City said one of the issues with today's tornadoes is that people are at work and school.

"What we're seeing from helicopter coverage," Gwartney tells our Newscast unit, "is very reminiscent of the May 1999 tornado that killed lots of people especially in the Moore area of the Oklahoma City metro.

A report from USA Today at time, put that 1999 tornado's top winds at 318 mph.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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