(OKLAHOMA CITY) — A mammoth tornado carved a trail of destruction through the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, killing at least 51 people and ripping apart two elementary schools today, local authorities said.
David Barnes, the director of Oklahoma Emergency Management in Oklahoma County, told ABC News that a single twister tore through homes from Newcastle to Moore, a path of 12 miles. The damage was “widespread” and people’s homes were completely destroyed, all the way to their foundations, he said.
At least 51 people have been confirmed dead in tornado’s aftermath, according to the state’s chief medical examiner’s office.
“It is absolutely devastating, this is horrific,” Oklahoma Lt. Gov Todd Lamb said. “We’re going to have fatalities. … We’re going to have significant injuries. … We just don’t know what those numbers are. Schools have been hit, a hospital has been hit, businesses have been flattened, neighborhoods have been wiped away — we don’t have the numbers in yet but it is going to be significant and it is going to be horrific.”
The National Weather Service said the preliminary rating of the Newcastle-Moore Tornado was at least EF-4, meaning wind speeds of up to 200 mph.
Authorities said Briarwood Elementary School in Moore, Okla., received a “direct hit” from the storm and was severely damaged. In anticipation of the severe weather this afternoon, schools in the Moore area did not release their students at the end of the school day, according to Oklahoma Emergency Management officials.
One sixth grade boy named Brady told ABC affiliate KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City that he and other students took cover in a bathroom.
“Cinderblocks and everything collapsed on them but they were underneath so that kind of saved them a little bit, but I mean they were trapped in there,” he said.
Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore was also in the monster twister’s path. Local residents who lived near the school rushed to help pull kids and teachers out.
First responders on the scene tell ABC News all children at both schools have been accounted for, but they are still going door-to-door to search for people in homes.
Moore resident Melissa Newton said the hail from the tornado was “about the size of golfballs.”
The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado emergency for the Oklahoma City metropolitan area Monday afternoon, meaning that significant damage and fatalities were likely.
The Oklahoma University Medical Center in downtown Oklahoma City had received seven patients as of early Monday evening but was expecting more, hospital spokesman Scott Coppenbarger said.
About the condition of the patients he would only say they had the kind of “injuries suffered in a tornado … you can probably imagine.”
First responders were reportedly having trouble reaching Moore, which has a population of about 56,300 people, because people were stuck in their cars on the highway.
“We’ve got so many people that are all on the interstate that we can not get our emergency responders to the scene because we’ve got so many people tied up in traffic on I-35,” said Betsy Randolph of the State Highway Patrol.
This twister was the latest in a group of violent storms that swept through the Midwest, starting Sunday, that has left at least two people dead and dozens more injured.
On Sunday, a tornado ripped through Shawnee, Okla., killing a 79-year-old man near a mobile home park that was reduced to rubble, according to Pottawatomie County Sheriff Mike Booth.
Twisters, hail and high winds also struck Iowa and Kansas as part of a devastating, northeastward-moving storm system that stretched from Texas to Minnesota. Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma were ravaged by 50 tornadoes this weekend.
The National Weather Service says that one of the tornadoes near Wichita, Kan., registered EF-1 winds up to 110 mph. It was on the ground for an estimated 4.5 miles.
Moore was the site of one of the most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history. On May 3, 1999, an EF-5 tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City area, killing 36 people.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Travis Kircher, WDRB
Stephen Collinson, CNN
Christine Brennan, Tim Hume and Jill Martin, CNN