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Oklahoma still spinning after deadly tornado

The search-and-rescue operation in Oklahoma has shifted to one of recovery.

The suburb of Moore in Oklahoma was reduced to rubble after a massive tornado hit on 20 May 2013. Picture: AFP

OKLAHOMA - Rescuers went building to building in search of victims and survivors picked through the rubble of their shattered homes on Tuesday, a day after a massive tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, wiping out blocks of houses and killing at least 24 people.

After a long day of searching, emergency crews lifted broken doors, moved sections of shattered walls and tossed aside bricks looking for survivors as cadaver dogs sniffed through the rubble. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said he believed all the dead and missing had been accounted for.

"We've checked the area with thermal imaging, as well as gone door to door, so we feel like we're fixing to go from rescue and searching to recovery," Lewis told CNN.

The death toll of 24 was lower than initially feared, but nine children were among the dead, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit on Monday in the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years. About 240 people were injured.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris of homes, schools and a hospital after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 320 km/h, leaving a trail of destruction 23 km long by 2 km wide.

The National Weather Service upgraded its calculation of the storm's strength on Tuesday, saying it was a rare EF5, the most powerful ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with winds exceeding 320 km/h.

In the hours right after the storm, many more people had been feared dead. At one point, the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said the toll could rise as high as 91, but on Tuesday officials said 24 bodies had been recovered, down from a previous tally of 51.

The earlier numbers likely reflected some double-counted deaths, said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.

"There was a lot of chaos," she said.

'AS LONG AS IT TAKES'

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in Oklahoma, ordering 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," Obama said at the White House.

Lewis, the Moore mayor, warned residents of the danger of electrocution and fire from downed power lines and broken natural gas lines. Thunderstorms and lightning slowed the search effort and made conditions tough for families left with nothing but their clothes.

In the neighbourhood, brick walls were flattened and pink insulation was scattered everywhere. Hundreds of cars looked as if they had been shelled. In a sign of the tornado's strength, a bicycle wheel found in a sodden field had lost its rim and the spokes were wrapped around the hub.

Authorities warned the town 16 minutes before the tornado touched down just after 3 pm That amount of time is more than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning.

FIVE SCHOOLS HIT

US Representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, said the Plaza Towers school was the most secure building in the area.

"And so people did the right thing, but if you're in front of an F4 or an F5 (in tornado strength), there is no good thing to do if you're above ground. It's just tragic," he said on MSNBC-TV.

Witnesses said Monday's tornado appeared more fierce than a 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.

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