President Barack Obama singled out the strength and resiliency of Oklahoma tornado victims Sunday and pledged the federal government’s help rebuilding the community.
“There is no doubt they will bounce back, but they need help,” he said while standing before the ruins of Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died beneath the crush of rubble.
“You are not alone,” Obama said. “You’ve got folks behind you.”
Federal help has already come with 450 federal employees who remain in the state, assisting recovery efforts. Additional support will come from FEMA dollars.
Obama said FEMA teams have completed searches of more than 1,200 buildings and helped register more than 4,200 for disaster assistance. Feds have already approved more than $3.4 million in direct aid.
“The world now knows Moore is OK. We are strong; we are resilient; we will fight our way back,” Superintendent Susan Pierce said following the president’s visit. “We are all Moore Public Schools and there is no place like home.”
Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary were destroyed in the May 20 tornado. Highland East Middle School was heavily damaged and other MPS facilities suffered damage, as well. Oklahoma’s cold war with the White House took a day off Sunday when the president walked streets laid waste by an EF-5 tornado. United in their support of the victims, Gov. Mary Fallin and Obama put political differences aside in an effort to console those most affected by the EF-5 twister that carved a 14-mile path through Moore.
The president is well known for showing compassion in response to tragedy. He has visited the sites of school shootings, hurricanes, bombings and the Joplin tornado.
“If you talk to folks in New Jersey and New York, they’ll tell you that when we say we’re going to be there until you completely rebuild, we mean it,” Obama said.
Today, he is expected to visit New Jersey to tour the progress of recovery along the coast affected by Hurricane Sandy last year.
Like Fallin, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, is a Republican, but party differences fall by the wayside when tragedy strikes, especially if federal aid is involved.
When Obama visited Oklahoma for the first time last year, Fallin was unavailable. That left Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett as the top Oklahoma elected official to greet Obama following his arrival at Tinker Air Force Base on March 21, 2012. The president visited Cushing as part of an energy tour that year.
Four months later, Fallin was outraged when a disaster declaration was denied after the July 28 through Aug. 14 wildfires killed a Cleveland County woman and destroyed 270 homes in Cleveland, Oklahoma and Payne counties.
The tornado in Moore changed everything.
Sunday, it was all smiles and hugs between Fallin and Obama. The presidential disaster declaration came quickly on the heels of the tornado’s devastation, with Obama responding Monday evening following the afternoon’s deadly storm.
Oklahoma will not rely solely on federal funds for tornado recovery. Five days ago, the state Senate voted to take $45 million out of the state’s $600 million Rainy Day fund for immediate tornado disaster relief.
Following the vote, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, said each dollar the state spends in disaster aid will be matched by $3 from the federal government.
During his visit, the President thanked first responders at Moore’s Fire Station No. 1 that has served as a command center for disaster recovery following the tornado. He also visited privately with parents of the Plaza Towers children who died.
The heroic actions of Moore’s teachers are well documented, but many questions remain unanswered about school safety during severe storms. The deaths at Plaza Towers were reportedly children who were crouched down, taking cover in a hallway.
Those issues will be studied in the weeks ahead and could provide valuable information for the future planning and safety of the nation’s schoolchildren.
Obama also took time to thank members of the National Weather Service for the advanced warning that saved so many lives.
“From the forecasters who issued the warnings, to the first responders who dug through the rubble, to the teachers who shielded with their own bodies their students, Oklahomans have inspired us,” Obama said.
During the 1970s, meteorologists and engineers at the National Severe Storms Lab in Norman “worked to make Doppler radar a practical reality,” meteorologist Mike Smith says in his book “Warnings.”
Today, the National Weather Service issues free warnings and alerts through weather radio transmissions and to meteorologists and media outlets nationwide. Those warnings have saved countless lives by providing time to take shelter. But when an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado hits, shelter in a hallway or closet may not be enough protection.
As Moore and other affected areas of Oklahoma — including Little Axe, Pecan Valley, Shawnee, Carney and Bethel Acres — move forward, those who rebuild homes and schools will face tough questions about funding priorities and whether they can afford to rebuild with shelters in place to save future lives.
“We were moved and honored by President Obama’s visit to our schools and to our community,” Pierce said. “He shared our grief for the precious lives lost and lauded the principals, teachers and school staff whose quick response and bravery saved countless lives. President Obama’s words of encouragement and commitment of support give us even greater fortitude as we begin the process of healing and rebuilding.”