Emergency workers searched for survivors in the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital in Oklahoma after it was hit by a tornado, as officials lowered the death toll to 24.
As dawn breaks Tuesday morning, storm clouds roll in over a destroyed neighborhood the day after a tornado hit in Moore, Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office said 24 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage of Monday’s storm, down from the 51 they had reported earlier.
The earlier number likely reflected some double-counted deaths, said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.
The two-mile wide tornado tore through Moore outside Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon, trapping victims beneath the rubble. One elementary school
took a direct hit and another was destroyed.
Thunderstorms and lightning slowed the rescue effort on Tuesday, but officials lowered the number of bodies recovered.
“We have got good news. The number right now is 24,” Ms Elliot said. “There was a lot of chaos.”
She said additional bodies could yet be recovered.
President Barack Obama vowed to stand with the people of Oklahoma, saying that they needed to fill the empty spaces where there were once houses with love.
“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,” Mr Obama said at the White House.
Describing the storm as one of the “most destructive tornado in history,” Obama said that the federal government would play a major role in the rescue effort in Moore and the rebuilding program to come.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes for their homes and schools to rebuild,” Mr Obama said.
“There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms and classrooms and in time we’re going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community,” Obama said.
Children wait for their parents to arrive at Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City.
Firefighters from more than a dozen fire departments worked all night under bright spotlights trying to find survivors at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit. Rescuers were sent from other states to join the search.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore after the deadliest US tornado since 161 people were killed in Joplin, Missouri, two years ago.
“The whole city looks like a debris field,” Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, told NBC.
“It looks like we have lost our hospital. I drove by there a while ago and it’s pretty much destroyed.”
There was an outpouring of grief on Plaza Towers’ Facebook page, with messages from around the country including one pleading simply: “Please find those little children.”
The National Weather Service assigned the twister a preliminary ranking of EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the second most powerful category of tornado with winds up to 200mph.
US Representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, said the Plaza Tower school was the most secure and structurally strong building in the area.
“And so people did the right thing, 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,” he said on MSNBC TV.
At least 60 of the 240 people injured were children, hospital officials said.
Witnesses said Monday’s tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the area on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5 tornado with wind speeds of more than 200mph.
A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers Monday, May 20, 2013. A tornado as much as a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide with winds up to 200 mph (320 kph) roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.
Speaking outside Norman Regional Hospital Ninia Lay, 48, said she huddled in a closet through two storm alerts and the tornado hit on the third.
“I was hiding in the closet and I heard something like a train coming,” she said under skies still flashing with lightning. The house was flattened and Lay was buried in the rubble for two hours until her husband Kevin, 50, and rescuers dug her out.
“I thank God for my cell phone, I called me husband for help.”
Her seven-year-old daughter Catherine, a first-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School, took shelter with classmates and teachers in a bathroom when the tornado hit and destroyed the school. She escaped with scrapes and cuts.
At Southmoore High School in Moore, about 15 students were in a field house when the tornado hit. Coaches sent them to an interior locker room and made them put on football helmets, the Oklahoman newspaper said. It said the students survived.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center warned the town 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3:01pm (2001 GMT), which is greater than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning, said Keli Pirtle, a spokesman for the centre in Norman, Oklahoma.
The notice was upgraded to emergency warning with “heightened language” at 2:56pm, or five minutes before the tornado touched down.
Edited for Telegraph.co.uk by Chris Irvine