Moore, Okla. — A giant tornado, a mile wide or more, killed at least 51 people, 20 of them children, as it tore across parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs Monday afternoon, flattening homes, flinging cars through the air and crushing at least two schools.
The injured flooded into hospitals, and the authorities said many people remained trapped, even as rescue workers struggled to make their way through debris-clogged streets to the devastated suburb of Moore, where much of the damage occurred.
Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said at least 51 people had died, including the children, and officials said that toll was likely to climb. Local hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.
Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore was reduced to a pile of twisted metal and toppled walls. Rescue workers were able to pull several children from the rubble, but on Monday evening crews were still struggling to cut through fallen beams and clear debris amid reports that dozens of students were trapped. At Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, on the border with Moore, cars were thrown through the facade and the roof was torn off.
“Numerous neighborhoods were completely leveled,” Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department said by telephone. “Neighborhoods just wiped clean.” He said debris and damage to roadways, along with heavy traffic, were hindering emergency responders as they raced to the affected areas.
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in Moore said emergency workers were struggling to assess the damage.
“Please send us your prayers,” she said.
Brooke Cayot, a spokeswoman for Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said 58 patients had come in by about 9 p.m. Another 85 were being treated at Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
“They’ve been coming in minute by minute,” Ms. Cayot said.
Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said the tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m., 16 minutes after the first warning went out, and traveled for 20 miles. It was on the ground for 40 minutes, she said. It struck the town of Newcastle and traveled about 10 miles to Moore, a populous suburb of Oklahoma City.
Ms. Pirtle said preliminary data suggested that it was a Category 4 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5. A definitive assessment will not be available until Tuesday, she said.
Events like today's will become routine, an annual stress test for the affected region's hospital surge capacity. In British Columbia, we quarrel about retrofitting our school buildings to survive a major subduction quake. In the US midwest, the battles will be over how deep to build the tornado shelters under every school.