By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN and SEAN MURPHY
---- — MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Helmeted rescue workers raced Tuesday to complete the search for survivors and the dead in the Oklahoma City suburb where a mammoth tornado destroyed countless homes, cleared lots down to bare red earth and claimed 24 lives, including those of nine children.
Scientists concluded the storm was a rare and extraordinarily powerful type of twister known as an EF5, ranking it at the top of the scale used to measure tornado strength. Those twisters are capable of lifting reinforced buildings off the ground, hurling cars like missiles and stripping trees completely free of bark.
Residents of Moore began returning to their homes a day after the tornado smashed some neighborhoods into jagged wood scraps and gnarled pieces of metal. In place of their houses, many families found only empty lots.
After nearly 24 hours of searching, the 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.
They did not know how many homes were gone or how many families had been displaced. Emergency crews had trouble navigating 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.
The death toll was revised downward from 51 after the state medical examiner said some victims may have been counted twice in the confusion.
By Tuesday afternoon, every damaged home had been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors.
The fire chief was hopeful that could be completed before nightfall, but the work was being hampered by heavy rain. Crews also continued a brick-by-brick search of the rubble of a school that was blown apart with many children inside.
No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.
On the streets of Moore, evidence of the storm’s fury stretched in every direction: Roofs were torn off houses, exposing metal rods left twisted like pretzels. Cars sat in heaps, crumpled and sprayed with caked-on mud. Insulation and siding was piled up against any walls still standing. Yards were littered with pieces of wood, nails and pieces of electric poles.
President Barack Obama pledged to provide federal help and mourned the death of young children who were killed while “trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school.”
The town of Moore “needs to get everything it needs right away,” he said Tuesday.
Moore has been one of the fastest-growing suburbs of Oklahoma City, attracting middle-income families and young couples looking for stable schools and affordable housing. The town’s population has grown over the last decade as developers built subdivisions for people who wanted to avoid the urban problems and schools of Oklahoma City but couldn’t afford pricier Norman, the college town next door.
Many residents commute to jobs in Oklahoma City or to Tinker Air Force Base, about 20 minutes away.