President Obama spent Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma surveying the damage of last week’s devastating tornadoes, thanking first responders and visiting with victims whose lives were upended by the storms.
While visiting the town of Moore, one of the hardest-hit areas, Mr. Obama said he was astounded by the extent of the damage and repeated his pledge from earlier in the week that the federal government will be there as long as it takes to clean up their town and help victims recover.
“When we say that we have got your back, we promise we will keep our word,” said Mr. Obama, who was flanked by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Rep. Tom Cole, several local officials, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.
“If you talk to folks in New Jersey and New York, when we say we’re going to be there until you completely rebuild, we mean it,” the president said.
“This is a strong community with strong character. There’s not doubt they will bounce back, but they need help,” he said, urging every American to “step up” with donations to the Red Cross and other organizations.
Mr. Obama also said the nation is grateful for the service of first responders and stressed that the training, some of which the federal government helps fund, is essential to provide the kind of immediate assistance needed when disasters hit.
“We cannot shortchange that kind of ongoing disaster response,” he said. “With that, I just want to say thank you to everyone here. May God bless the people of Oklahoma.”
Just before making the remarks, a somber Mr. Obama walked about a block along Eagle Drive, where the tornado left a path of utter ruin. On his left lay the twisted remains of Plaza Towers elementary school, where seven children died after the tornado hit last week.
Ten- to 20-foot-high piles of construction debris were amassed as far as the eye could see, and the trees left standing are stripped of leaves and bark.
Among the items spotted amid the debris were school yearbooks, textbooks, waterlogged encyclopedias, a baby-doll stroller, a purple plastic toy camcorder and a pink child’s parka. In some of the piles of rubble, someone planted American flags.
Reporters following Mr. Obama on the walk were too far away to hear any comments he made. The walk was quiet, interrupted only by the dull hum of a generator in the background as well as the rush of a stiff wind.
Mr. Obama and several top aides, traveling on Air Force One, touched down at Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base just before noon. He greeted families, gathered behind a rope line on the tarmac, from the Tinker Air Force Base community whose homes were either lost or damaged in the storms.
He later talked with families and first responders gathered at Plaza Towers Elementary School and visited Moore Fire Department Station No. 1, which has served as a command center in the aftermath of the tornado, first for search and rescue and now for survivors services. The president also planned to visit privately with the families of the children who lost their lives at the elementary school.
On Tuesday, the president will visit New Jersey to view the rebuilding and the recovery efforts underway following Hurricane Sandy’s destruction along the coastline last fall, according to the White House.
Joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he will visit with families and business owners to reassure them that the federal government will continue to help communities rebuild.