MOORE, Okla. — A 2-mile-wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday, killing at least 51 people, including 20 children, destroying entire tracts of homes and trapping two dozen schoolchildren beneath rubble.
Rescue teams raced against the setting sun and worked into the darkness in search of survivors as the dangerous storm system threatened several southern Plains states with more twisters.
The Oklahoma medical examiner confirmed 51 deaths, including 20 children, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since one killed 161 people in Joplin, Mo. Area hospitals reported at least 230 people injured, including at least 45 children.
Emergency crews searched the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School to look for two dozen missing children, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb said. The school took a direct hit from the tornado, Lamb told CNN.
Police and fire crews pulled some schoolchildren from the devastation, a KFOR television reporter said from the scene.
“I have never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is without question the most horrific,” KFOR’s Lance West said.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in Oklahoma after deadly tornadoes struck the state on Sunday and Monday and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts, the White House said Monday.
The White House said aid can include grants for temporary housing, home repairs, uninsured property losses and other recovery efforts.
Obama spoke by telephone with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin earlier Monday, the White House said.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center provided the town with a warning 16 minutes before Monday’s tornado touched down at 3:01 p.m. local time, which is greater than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the center in Norman.
The notice was upgraded to emergency warning with “heightened language” at 2:56 p.m., or five minutes before the tornado touched down, Pirtle said.
Television media measured the tornado at more than 2 miles wide, with images showing blocks of homes leveled by the twister, cars piled atop one another and buildings on fire.
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 200 mph.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary flight restriction that allowed only relief aircraft in the area, saying it was at the request of local police who wanted quiet to search for buried survivors.
Oklahoma activated the National Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency activated teams to support recovery operations and coordinate responses for multiple agencies.
Briarwood Elementary School, which also stood in the storm’s path, was all but destroyed. On the first floor, sections of walls had been peeled away, affording clear views into the building, while in other areas, cars hurled by the storm winds were lodged in the walls.
While the school was a wreck, nearby playground equipment stood undamaged, though littered with rubble.
Across the street, people picked through the remains of their homes, looking for any possessions they might salvage.
The number of injured as reported by several hospitals rose rapidly throughout Monday afternoon.
Oklahoma University Medical Center alone was treating 65 patients, 45 of them children, though it was no longer expecting a further mass influx of casualties, spokesman Scott Coppenbarger said.
Moore Medical Center had significant damage.
“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,” Lewis said.
Fire, rescue and emergency medical teams from across the state converged on Moore, said Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
“They are going to going to go house to house, building to building to determine whether anyone is trapped,” Watkins said.
The massive twister struck at the height of tornado season, and more were forecast. On Sunday, tornadoes killed two people and injured 39 in Oklahoma.
Witnesses said Monday’s tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the region on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5, meaning it had winds over 200 mph.
The 1999 event ranks as the third-costliest tornado in U.S. history, having caused more than $1 billion in damage at the time, or more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars. Only the devastating Joplin tornado and one in Tuscaloosa, Ala., both in 2011, were more costly.
The National Weather Service predicted a 10 percent chance of tornadoes in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. It said parts of four other states — Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa — have a 5 percent risk of tornadoes.
The area at greatest risk includes Joplin, which on Wednesday will mark two years since the tornado that killed 161 people.