MOORE, Okla. (AP) — President Barack Obama visited tornado-devastated Moore, Okla., on Sunday, consoling people staggered by the loss of life and property and promising that the federal government will be there to help “every step of the way.”
“I'm just a messenger here,” the president said, adding that “folks are behind you” across America.
He offered moral and monetary support in the wake of the monstrous EF5 tornado that killed 24 people, including 10 children, last Monday afternoon.
Standing with Gov. Mary Fallin and other state and federal officials, the president noted that the community faces a substantial rebuilding job and said “our hearts go out to you.”
“This is a strong community with strong character. There's no doubt they will bounce back,” he said. “But they need help.”
It's traditional for a president to upend his schedule in the wake of catastrophic events, yet such visits have been frequent over the past several months.
In December, Obama went to Newtown, Conn., days after the mass shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six school employees. He spoke at a memorial service in April days after the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured scores more. Earlier this month he attended a memorial service for residents and emergency workers killed in an April 17 fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
On Tuesday he plans to travel to the New Jersey shore to survey the rebuilding and recovery efforts after superstorm Sandy devastated the coastline in October. Obama visited the area just days after the storm hit.
“It's important for the people in these communities to understand that the entire nation is standing with them in their time of need,” presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Once on the ground in Oklahoma, Obama urged the American people to make contributions, saying the damage was “pretty hard to comprehend.”
Shortly after his arrival Obama was driven past grassy fields strewn with debris, witnessing devastation so awesome that it appeared as if garbage had rained from the sky.
His first stop was the demolished site of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven pupils were killed when the tornado turned the one-story building into a heap of bricks, broken concrete and twisted metal.
“I know this is tough,” he told Superintendent Susie Pierce. As he walked, the demolished school was on his left. On his right, as far as the eye could see, were homes reduced to piles of rubble. Every tree had been stripped of its leaves and bark.
The May 20 twister was an EF5, the most powerful on the National Weather Service's scale for tornado strength. The storm destroyed more than 1,300 homes and more than 47 non-residential structures, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The storm may have caused as much as $2 billion in damages and affected 30,000 people.
Obama at one point joined the Lewis family, which lost its home behind the school. He said the important thing was that they survived, and they could replace their things.
“What a mess,” he told Zack Lewis, a third-grader at the shattered school. Zack's father, Scott, ran into the school just before the storm hit and ran with his terrified son back to their home's storm shelter. “You've got some story to tell,” Obama told the boy. “This is something you'll remember all your life.”
Obama later met privately with victims' families at Moore Fire Department Station No. 1, which has been turned into a command center, with dozens of first responders sitting at tables where firetrucks normally park. The president marveled that the responders saved so many lives, “given the devastation.”
At nearby Tinker Air Force Base, Obama was greeted by Fallin, who earlier said she appreciated the visit, but that her state also needs quick action.
“There's a lot to be done here; a lot of businesses closed, a lot of people without jobs because their businesses are closed,” she said on “State of the Union” on CBS. “It's not just a couple of houses with roofs off.”
The governor, a Republican, said that FEMA has done a great job so far of speeding relief and cash assistance to affected families, but she said she's concerned about the long term.
Fallin said the money is particularly vital. “A lot of people lose their checkbooks, they lose their credit cards, they lose their driver's license, their birth certificates, their insurance papers — they lose everything, and they have no cash. And some of the banks were even hit, the ATM machines, so people need cash to get immediate needs,” she said on CBS's “Face the Nation.”
Earnest touted the federal contributions so far, including Obama's signing of a disaster declaration within hours of the storm to speed aid from FEMA.
Earnest said that 450 FEMA personnel were working on the ground in Oklahoma and have delivered 43,000 meals, 150,000 liters of water and thousands of cots, blankets and tarps. He said 4,200 people have applied for disaster assistance, and $3.4 million in payments have been approved.
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.
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