UPDATE: (CNN) — Damage assessments show that the tornado that struck central Oklahoma on Monday was an EF5 — meaning it had winds of 200 mph or greater — for at least some of the time it was ravaging an area near Oklahoma City, the National Weather Service says. The weather service said its crews found at least one area with damage indicative of an EF5 tornado.
MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) — Even for a city toughened by massive tornadoes, Moore has never seen this kind of devastation.
The official death toll stood at 24 Tuesday morning, but a coroner’s office official said some 40 bodies have yet to be processed by medical examiners — roughly half of them children. More bodies could be hidden under the vast debris field, authorities warned.
The official death toll will gradually rise as each of the bodies is processed, Elliott said.
Click here to watch KFOR’s live stream
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Despite the woeful news, rescue workers clung to the hope of finding more survivors and scoured mountains of rubble where houses and schools once stood.
At least 20 of those killed were children, including seven from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore — the site of a frantic search Tuesday morning.
The school was in the direct path of the storm’s fury. About 75 students and staff members were hunkered down in Plaza Towers when the tornado struck, CNN affiliate KFOR reported.
At one point, an estimated 24 children were missing from the school, but some later turned up at nearby churches. It’s unclear how many may still be trapped in the wreckage, and how many are dead or alive.
A father of a third-grader still missing sat quietly on a stool outside. Tears cascaded from his face as he waited for any news.
Even parents of survivors couldn’t wrap their minds around the tragedy.
“I’m speechless. How did this happen? Why did this happen?” Norma Bautista asked. “How do we explain this to the kids? … In an instant, everything’s gone.”
Across town, Moore Medical Center also succumbed to the tornado.
“Our hospital has been devastated,” Mayor Glenn Lewis said. “We had a two-story hospital, now we have a one. And it’s not occupiable.”
So 145 of the injured were rushed to three other area hospitals.
That number includes 45 children taken to the children’s hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, Dr. Roxie Albrecht said. Injuries ranged from minor to severe, including impalement and crushing injuries.
Not the first time
Moore is far too familiar with the extent of nature’s wrath.
The Oklahoma City suburb recovered from a fierce 1999 twister that killed six people there and dozens in the area. When that tornado struck, it had the strongest wind speed in history, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Tom Lamb said.
Another tornado tore through Moore in 2003, Lamb said.
This time, the two-mile-wide twister stayed on the ground for a full 40 minutes, carving a 22-mile path where thousands of residents live.
The tornado first touched down in Newcastle, Oklahoma, before ripping into neighboring Moore. An early estimate rated the tornado as an EF4, meaning it had winds between 166 and 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
After the ear-shattering howl subsided, survivors along the miles of destruction emerged from shelters to see an apocalyptic vision. Homes and other buildings were shredded to pieces. Remnants of mangled cars were piled on top of each other. What used to be a parking lot now looked like a junkyard.
“People are wandering around like zombies,” KFOR reporter Scott Hines said. “It’s like they’re not realizing how to process what had just happened.”
The death toll has far surpassed anything the city has seen from a tornado — and is expected to climb.
Hiding in freezers
Hines said rescuers found a 7-month-old baby and its mother hiding in a giant freezer. But they didn’t survive.
At the devastated hospital in Moore, some doctors had to jump into a freezer to survive, Lamb said.
Lando Hite, shirtless and spattered in mud, described how the storm pummeled the Orr Family Farm in Moore, which had about 80 horses before the storm hit.
“It was just like the movie ‘Twister,’ ” Hite told KFOR. “There were horses and stuff flying around everywhere.”
More trouble brewing
But the storm system that spawned Monday’s tornado and several other twisters Sunday isn’t over yet.
Southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas, including Dallas, are under the gun for severe weather Tuesday. Those areas could see large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes.
A broader swath of the United States, from Texas to Indiana and up to Michigan, could see severe thunderstorms.
“We could have a round 3,” CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera said. “Hopefully, it won’t be as bad.”
The tornado sucked up debris along its path and swirled it several miles into the sky.
“The structures that were just demolished were picked up by the twister here and just jetted up into the atmosphere, 20,000 feet,” Cabrera said.
James Dickens is not a firefighter or medic. He’s actually a gas-and-oil pipeline worker. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing a hard hat and joining other rescuers at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“I felt it was my duty to come help,” he said Tuesday after a long night of searching.
“As a father, it’s humbling. It’s heartbreaking to know that we’ve still got kids over there that’s possibly alive, but we don’t know.”
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