Residents of Moore, Oklahoma are returning to sheer devastation after a massive tornado decimated the town Monday afternoon, releasing an amount of energy that dwarfed even the power of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, according to experts.
The National Weather Service gave the twister a rating of EF5 for wind speed and breadth, and severity of damage on Tuesday. EF5 tornadoes are the strongest tornadoes and have the most violent winds on Earth, more powerful than a hurricane. The Moore tornado's wind speeds were estimated at between 200 and 210 mph.
Officials on Tuesday revised the number of dead from an earlier count of 51 to 24, saying at least nine of the dead were children. The state medical examiner said some victims may have been counted twice in the confusion. More than 200 people were treated at area hospitals.
"To date, 24 deceased victims of the tornado have been transported to our Oklahoma City office, and positive identifications have been made in the vast majority of those, and these are ready for return to their loved ones," Oklahoma state medical examiner's office spokeswoman Amy Elliott told FoxNews.com in an e-mail Tuesday.
Additionally, after nearly 24 hours of searching, the town's fire chief said he was confident there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.
"I'm 98 percent sure we're good," Gary Bird said at a news conference with the governor, who had just completed an aerial tour of the disaster zone.
Authorities were so focused on the search effort that they had yet to establish the full scope of damage along the storm's long, ruinous path.
The five ranking, on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, puts the tornado in the same class as the deadliest in U.S. history, which hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011, killing 158 and injuring hundreds more.
Several meteorologists consulted by the Associated Press estimated the tornado's energy released during the storm ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, with more experts at the high end. Their calculations were based on energy measured in the air and then multiplied over the size and duration of the storm.
"An EF-5 is as bad as it gets," said Joe D'Aleo, co-chief forecaster for WeatherBell Analytics. "It's equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane. It means winds were more than 200 miles per hour, and it means you have to be underground, because there will be nothing left above ground."
Such devastation was seen in Moore Tuesday, as emergency crews struggled to navigate devastated neighborhoods because there were no street signs left. Some rescuers used smartphones or GPS devices to guide them through areas with no recognizable landmarks.
"We will rebuild and we will regain our strength," said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as a "heartbreaking experience" that is "hard to look at."
Fallin said many houses and buildings have been reduced to "sticks and bricks." Homes were seen crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.
"Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today," President Obama said in a Tuesday news conference, expressing gratitude for the residents and first responders who are assisting with the search and rescue efforts, and teachers who shielded their children as the tornado hit two schools.
"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, and be beside them as long as it takes," Obama said. "Oklahoma needs to get everything that it needs right away."
Fallin announced that the White House approved Oklahoma's request for disaster assistance for five counties: Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma and Pottawatomie. Additional damage assessments could be added to the declaration.
Fallin also urged Oklahomans to call 1-800-621-FEMA for help, and said the state set up a website, www.okstrong.ok.gov, for information on available emergency services.
Many land lines to stricken areas were down after the tornado hit, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, Fallin said.
Search-and-rescue teams had concentrated on Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.
Neither Plaza Towers nor another school in Oklahoma City that was not as severely damaged had reinforced storm shelters, or safe rooms, said Albert Ashwood is director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
More than 100 schools across the state do have safe rooms, he said, explaining that it's up to each jurisdiction to set spending priorities.
Ashwood said a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at Plaza Towers.
"When you talk about any kind of safety measures ... it's a mitigating measure, it's not an absolute," he told reporters. "There's not a guarantee that everyone will be totally safe."
Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said.
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 two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he said.
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.
After hearing that the tornado was headed toward another school called Briarwood Elementary, David Wheeler left work and drove 100 mph through blinding rain and gusting wind to find his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. When he got to the school site, "it was like the earth was wiped clean, like the grass was just sheared off, " Wheeler said.
Eventually, he found Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him. His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head — but he was alive. As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood were initially sent to the halls, but a third-grade teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — thought it didn't look safe and so ushered the children into a closet, he said.
The teacher shielded Gabriel with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces, Wheeler said.
"She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down," Wheeler said.
In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.
The tornado also destroyed the community hospital and some retail stores. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop.
"All of my employees were in the vault," Lewis said.
Chris Calvert saw the menacing cloud approaching from about a mile away.
"I was close enough to hear it," he said. "It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it."
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 Monday. 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; the storm then had winds clocked at 300 mph.
Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo., said it's unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003.
Lewis, who was also mayor during the 1999 storm, said the city was already working to recover.
"We've already started printing the street signs," he said. "It took 61 days to clean up after the 1999 tornado. We had a lot of help then. We've got a lot of help now."