Obama declares major disaster in Oklahoma after deadly tornadoes

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in Oklahoma after deadly tornadoes struck the state and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts, the White House said on Monday.

The White House said aid can include grants for temporary housing, home repairs, uninsured property losses and other recovery efforts.

Mr Obama spoke by telephone with Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin earlier on Monday, the White House said.

A 3km-wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday, killing at least 51 people while destroying entire tracts of homes, piling cars atop one another, and trapping two dozen school children beneath rubble.

Twenty of the 51 confirmed deaths were children, the Oklahoma medical examiner said, and at least 45 of the 230 people injured were children, according to area hospitals. It was the deadliest US tornado since one killed 161 people in Joplin, Missouri, two years ago.

Rescue teams raced against the setting sun and worked into the darkness in search of survivors throughout the wide swath of devastation, while the dangerous storm system threatened several southern Plains states with more twisters. Severe weather was expected through the night from the Great Lakes south to Texas.

Emergency crews searched the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School for two dozen missing children, Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said. The school took a direct hit from the tornado, he told CNN.

The town of Moore, population about 50,000, was devastated with debris everywhere, street signs gone, lights out and houses completely obliterated.

Another elementary school and a hospital were among the buildings leveled.

"We thought we died because we were inside the cellar door ... It ripped open the door and just glass and debris started slamming on us and we thought we were dead to be honest," survivor Ricky Stover said while surveying the devastated remains of his home.

Ms Cyndi Christopher was at work and went to pick up her son from daycare when she heard the storm warning. After taking her son home, she was forced to flee when she noticed the storm was coming their way.

"I drove as fast as I could and I outran the storm," she said.

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 320km per hour.

Witnesses said Monday's tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the area on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5.

The 1999 event in Oklahoma ranks as the third-costliest tornado in US history, having caused more than US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) in damage at the time, or more than US$1.3 billion in today's dollars. Only the devastating Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Centre provided the town with a warning 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3.01pm local time (4.01am on Tuesday, Singapore time), which is greater than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning, said Ms Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the centre in Norman, Oklahoma.

The notice was upgraded to emergency warning with "heightened language" at 2.56 pm, or five minutes before the tornado touched down, Ms Pirtle said.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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 US Federal Emergency Management Agency activated teams to support recovery operations and coordinate responses for multiple agencies.