WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama flew to tornado-ravaged Oklahoma Sunday, offering moral and monetary support to people still reeling from lost lives and shattered neighborhoods. He told survivors, "You've got folks behind you" across America.
Standing with Gov. Mary Fallin and other state and federal officials amid the devastation wrought by a monstrous EF5 tornado, Obama said, "A picture's worth a thousand words." He said rebuilding job will be enormous and "we're going to be with you all the way."
"Our hearts go out to you," Obama said, noting the loss of life and some 1,200 homes. He urged the American people to pitch in and help, saying that in instances such as this, the president serves as a "messenger" for all citizens, bringing words of condolence, promises of government assistance and pleas for private contributions.
Twenty-four people, including 10 children, died when the nearly tornado hit with little notice last Monday afternoon.
The White House said before his arrival Sunday that Obama wanted a firsthand look at the destruction and recovery efforts.
Shortly after his arrival on a partly cloudy day, Obama road in his motorcade 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.
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."
Obama flew from Washington into Tinker Air Force Base and shook hands with personnel whose homes off base were lost or damaged.
Fallin, the first to greet the president as he got off the plane, said she appreciates the visit, but the state also needs quick action from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help the ravaged town of 41,000 people.
The Republican governor said so far, the agency has done a great job of speeding relief and cash assistance to affected families, but 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."
Obama offered prayers for residents from the White House in recent days and has promised to support the rebuilding for as long as it takes. "They have suffered mightily this week," Obama said Wednesday. "And while the road ahead will be long, their country will be with them every single step of the way."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters accompanying the presidential party on Air Force One, 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 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.
Earnest also said that forecasters from the National Weather Service had worked ahead of the storm to prepare communities that it threatened. He said they issued a warning 36 minutes before the tornado entered Moore, earlier than the 12-minute average warning. Twenty-four people perished in the tornado, including 10 children.
"These advancements, made by government scientists in the field of weather forecasting at these agencies are dramatic and they're saving lives," Earnest said. He said Sunday wasn't a day for a partisan political debate, adding that "it is evident to any impartial observer here what an important role the federal government can play in providing assistance to our people at their time of urgent need."
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.
Fallin noted that some 100 other schools in Oklahoma have safe rooms for children to seek shelter in tornados.
"Schools that have been lost in the past, many of them have rebuilt rooms of some sort as a safe room in their school, and we're certainly going to encourage that," she said.
"Any death is very unfortunate, but it's truly incredible that we had only 24 deaths at this site, because if you look at all the debris field and how wide it is, I don't know how anybody survived this tornado," she said on CBS.
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," Earnest said.