POSTED: 8:34 a.m. HST, May 26, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 4:46 a.m. HST, May 27, 2013
MOORE, Okla. » President Barack Obama visited tornado-devastated Moore, Okla., consoling people staggered by the loss of life and property and promising that the government will be behind them "every step of the way."
"I'm just a messenger here," the president said, offering moral and monetary support Sunday to the Oklahoma City suburb where 24 people, including 10 children, were killed last Monday afternoon when the EF5 tornado struck.
Standing with Gov. Mary Fallin and other state and federal officials, Obama noted the substantial rebuilding job ahead and said "our hearts go out to you."
"This is a strong community with strong character," he said. "There's no doubt they will bounce back. But they need help."
Obama urged the American people to make contributions as well, noting the loss of some 1,200 home and saying the damage was "pretty hard to comprehend."
Shortly after his arrival on a partly cloudy day, Obama road past grassy fields strewn with scattered debris, witnessing devastation so awesome that it appeared as if garbage had literally rained from the sky. His first stop was the demolished site of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven students were killed when the tornado turned the one-story building into a heap of bricks, broken concrete and twisted metal.
The White House said that FEMA has already provided $57 million in rebates and incentives to help build about 12,000 storm shelters in Oklahoma. "These storm shelters can be the difference between life and death," presidential spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters accompanying Obama to Oklahoma on Air Force One.
Obama walked along Eagle Drive, with the demolished school on his left and on his right, homes reduced as far as the eye could see to piles of rubble. Vehicles were turned upside down and toys like doll carriages and children's books were strewn with furniture and ripped out wall insulation.
"I know this is tough," he told one school official.
He met the Lewis family, who lost their home behind the school, telling them the important thing is they survived and could replace their things.
"What a mess," he told their son Zack, 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."
For Obama, Sunday's visit had a familiar ring.
Only five months into his second term, he has traveled as president over the last several years to the northeast to console people in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and visited Connecticut and Arizona to comfort people traumatized by shooting rampages. He also has undertaken his consoler-in-chief role at the site of plant explosions and mine disasters, not to mention last year's visit to support Jersey Shore people affected by Superstorm Sandy.
On Sunday, Obama flew from Washington to Tinker Air Force Base and shook hands as soon as he descended the stairs. Fallin, the first to greet the president, had said earlier that she appreciated the visit, but the that her state also needs quick action from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Republican governor said so far, the agency has done a great job of speeding relief and cash assistance to affected families, but said she's concerned about the long run.
"There's going to come a time when there's going to be a tremendous amount of need once we begin the debris clearing, which we already have, but really get it cleared off to where we need to start rebuilding these homes, rebuilding these businesses," she said on CBS' "Face the Nation." ''And we know at different times in the past, money hasn't come always as quickly as it should."
Earnest said Obama wanted to make the trip to offer condolences and reiterate his and the nation's commitment to rebuild.
"This is the greatest nation on Earth, and we're going to dedicate this nation's time, attention, resources and expertise to help our people in their time of urgent crisis," the spokesman said.
Earnest also touted the federal contributions so far, including Obama's signing of a disaster declaration within hours of the storm to speed aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 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.
Fallin said the money is particularly vital for the victims. "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.
Among the tornado victims were 10 children, including two sisters pulled by the strong winds out of their mother's grasp, an infant who died along with his mother trying to ride out the storm in a convenience store and seven students at Plaza Towers. Many students were pulled from the rubble after the school was destroyed.