Updated Tuesday, 10:14 am
Back when the highest winds ever recorded–302 miles per hour–blew through Moore, Okla., in 1999, none of the 440 young students at Plaza Towers Elementary School had yet been born. The tornado that swept through the suburban Oklahoma City community on Monday killed at least 24 people, according to the Oklahoma medical examiner’s office.
Initially, 51 deaths were reported during the early phase of recovery but that figure was revised down to 24 Tuesday morning. The number of fatalities from the powerful tornado was expected to rise.
Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin said that “hearts are broken” for parents wondering about the fate of their children.
At least seven children drowned in the basement of the school, according to a Weather Channel reporter, and Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb said rescue workers continue to search for up to two dozen missing children at the school.
A man with a megaphone stood near a Catholic church Monday evening and called out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons’ and daughters’ names, according to the Associated Press.
Officials say the search and rescue effort will continue throughout the night.
“I’ve had a phone call with President Obama who offered his prayers to the state…and offered to speed up and get rid of red tape for federal resources,” Governor Fallin said. “We have bought in rescue dogs… It’ll be dark pretty soon and we want to do what we can to search.”
However, Fallin added, “Communication is very very hard so we’re asking the public to be patient. We’re doing everything we can.”
The Oklahoma governor told a Monday news conference that a center for those seeking loved ones has been set up at a church in Moore, where an afternoon tornado flattened entire neighborhoods and destroyed an elementary school with a direct hit. She says responders are working as quickly as they can to sort through the rubble.
There was advance warning of the storm. Meteorologists warn citizens to evacuate the community. Up to 75 students were still inside Plaza Towers Elementary after fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students had been evacuated to a nearby church before the tornado hit the town. Those students were all accounted for after the school took a direct hit from the damaging winds and debris.
Kindergarten through third grade had been sheltered in the school, according to NBC affiliate KFOR, which also reported that when the tornado struck the school, some of those students were inside the school’s hallways. KFOR later reported that at least 24 of the students had been killed. Several children were pulled alive from the Plaza Towers Elementary rubble, and a sixth-grade teacher–who a KFOR reporter described as “nothing short of a hero”–told the station that she shielded several children with her own body, and all survived.
Another school, Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City, was also reportedly damaged by the tornado. “It’s been completely wiped away here,” said NBC News’ Jay Gray on The Rachel Maddow Show as he stood in front of the wreckage. Gray also confirmed that all of the children at the school are alive and accounted for.
President Obama declared the area a federal disaster zone in order to speed up financial and other assistance to the devastated town.
Monday’s tornado hit almost two years to the day after an EF-5 twister ravaged Joplin, Mo. Joplin’s mayor, Melodee Colbert Kean, told NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez that the city is sending a rescue team of 10 officers and three firefighters to Moore, Okla.