Moore, Oklahoma tornado was EF-5, death toll at 24; Damage 20 miles long, 2 miles wide

MOORE, Okla. - The National Weather Service confirms that the tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., Monday  afternoon was a top-of-the-scale EF-5, the most powerful and catastrophic kind on the enhanced Fujita scale.

That type of tornado is so rare, fewer than 0.1% of tornadoes are classified as an EF-5, according to 7NEWS Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson.

The awesome amount of energy released from the storm dwarfed the power of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, according the Associated Press. Wind speeds over Moore were estimated at between 200 and 210 mph.

Several meteorologists used real time measurements to calculate the energy released during the storm's life span of almost an hour. Their estimates ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb with more experts at the high end.

The tornado at some points was 1.3 miles wide, and its path went on for 17 miles and 40 minutes. That's long for a regular tornado but not too unusual for such a violent one, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference that 237 people were treated at local hospitals. She did not know how many people are still missing.

The medical examiner said Tuesday that at least 24 people had died. That was lower than initial reports, but because of the early chaos and confusion, there was a double-reporting of casualties, according to the medical examiner.  Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, said Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner.

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

-- Search for survivors nearly complete --

Moore Fire Department Chief Gary Bird said 200 emergency responders worked through the night looking for survivors and victims of the tornado. Those crews lifted bricks and parts of collapsed walls. A helicopter shined a spotlight from above to aid in the search.

More than 100 survivors were found overnight, KFOR-TV reported Tuesday.

He said rescuers were nearly complete with their search of the rubble. By Tuesday afternoon,  Bird said he's "98 percent sure" there are no more survivors or bodies to recover.

Every damaged home has been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal is to conduct three searches of each location just to be sure. He was hopeful the work could be completed by nightfall, but the efforts were being hampered by heavy rain.

No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.

"We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength," said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as "hard to look at."

Emergency crews were having trouble navigating neighborhoods because the devastation was so complete, and there are no street signs left standing, Fallin added.

-- Heart-wrenching stories of survival at the schools --

The tornado destroyed block after block of homes, including the community hospital and two schools. Briarwood Elementary was damaged by the tornado, but not as extensively as Plaza Towers Elementary.

James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.

"About 2 minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he said.

The father of an 8-year-old Oklahoma boy says a teacher saved his son's life as a tornado tore into their school Monday.

David Wheeler says the teacher at Briarwood Elementary in Moore took students into a closet and shielded them with her arms as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting children upward. He says the pull from the funnel was so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces.

As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood Elementary were sent into the halls. But Wheeler says third-grade teacher Julie Simon thought it didn't look safe, so she ushered the children into a closet instead.

In Wheeler's words, "She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down."

As dusk fell, heavy equipment rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for children. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.

Douglas Sherman drove two blocks from his home to help.

"Just having those kids trapped in that school, that really turns the table on a lot of things," he said.

Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

-- Why is Moore so 'unlucky?' --

A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City's rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.

Monday's powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999. (See map of the tornado's path below or here:

It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003.

Why Moore? It's a combination of geography, meteorology and lots of bad luck, experts said.

Moore is a community of 41,000 people 10 miles south of Oklahoma City.

If you look at the climate history of tornadoes in May, you will see they cluster in a spot - maybe 100 miles wide - in central Oklahoma "and there's good reason for it," said Adam Houston, meteorology professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. That's the spot where the weather conditions of warm, moist air and strong wind shear needed for tornadoes combine in just the right balance.

The hot spot is more than just the city of Moore. Several meteorologists offer the same explanation for why that suburb seemed to be hit repeatedly by violent tornadoes: "bad luck."

Scientists know the key ingredients that go into a devastating tornado. But they are struggling to figure out why they develop in some big storms and not others. They also are still trying to determine what effects, if any, global warming has on tornadoes.

Monday's twister came almost exactly two years after an enormous tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

View Moore, Okla. Tornado Paths in a larger map

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