— The death toll from the storm was downgraded to 24 from 51 as it became apparent some victims had been double-counted in the initial confusion.
— The search for victims and survivors was winding down, with no new discoveries Tuesday.
— The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration upgraded its rating of the storm to a top-scale EF5 from EF4 on the enhanced Fujitsa scale, with winds of at least 200 mph.
— President Barack Obama pledged to provide whatever federal help is needed in the recovery effort.
— Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said she was confident the town of Moore, epicenter of the destruction, would rebuild.
— Parents praised the heroism of teachers who helped protect students at two Moore elementary schools, though seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary.
— The NBA and its players union, following the lead of Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant and the team, pledged $1 million apiece in donations.
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.
Scientists concluded the storm was a rare and extraordinarily powerful type of twister known as an EF5, which is capable of lifting reinforced buildings off the ground, hurling cars like missiles and stripping trees of bark.
Meanwhile, 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.
Fire Chief Gary Bird said he was confident there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.
“I’m 98 percent sure we’re good,” Bird said Tuesday at a news conference with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, 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.
The death toll was revised downward from 51 after the state medical examiner said some victims may have been counted twice in the confusion. More than 200 people were injured.
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.
No additional survivors or bodies had been found since Monday night, Bird said.
Survivors emerged with harrowing accounts of the storm’s wrath. Chelsie McCumber grabbed her 2-year-old son, Ethan, wrapped him in jackets and covered him with a mattress before they squeezed into a coat closet of their house. She sang to him when he complained it was getting hot in the cramped space.
“I told him we’re going to play tent in the closet,” she said, beginning to cry.
“I just felt air so I knew the roof was gone,” she said Tuesday, standing under the open sky where her roof should have been.
Fallin lamented the loss of life, especially of the nine children killed, but she expressed her faith in the resilience of Moore, which was battered by an equally brutal tornado in 1999.
“We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength,” she said.
From the air, large stretches of town could be seen where every home had been cut to pieces. Some were sucked off their concrete slabs. A pond was filled with piles of wood and an overturned trailer.
Also visible were large patches of red earth where the tornado scoured the land down to the soil. Some tree trunks were still standing, but the winds had ripped away their leaves, limbs and bark.
In revising its estimate of the storm’s power, the National Weather Service said the tornado, which was on the ground for 40 minutes, was a top-of-the-scale EF5 twister with winds of at least 200 mph.
The agency upgraded the tornado from an EF4 on the enhanced Fujita scale based on reports from a damage-assessment team, said spokeswoman Keli Pirtle. The first EF5 tornado of 2013, it was at least a half-mile wide.
Other search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.
Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said.
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, electric poles and nails.
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.
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. Many residents commute to jobs in Oklahoma City or to Tinker Air Force Base, which is about 20 minutes away.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com