Obama travels to tornado-ravaged Oklahoma

Obama travels to tornado-ravaged Oklahoma

MOORE, Okla. - Agence France-Presse
Obama travels to tornado-ravaged Oklahoma

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted as he tours a tornado affected area on May 26, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma. AFP photo

U.S. President Barack Obama on May 26 offered solace and support to residents of Oklahoma as they rebuild their shattered lives after last week's monster tornado, which killed 24 people.

"When we say that we've got your back, I promise you that we keep our word," Obama declared, as he stood in front of the wreckage of the Plaza Towers Elementary school.

In the shadow of the now unrecognizable mountain of twisted metal and wood, where many of the 10 child victims of the storm lost their lives, he praised the local response "from the forecasters who issued the warnings to the first responders who digged through the rubble to the teachers who shielded with their own bodies their students." He also praised those who have offered shelter for those whose homes were destroyed.

"This is a strong community. With strong character. There's no doubt they're going to bounce back, but they need help," he said.

"Just like any of us would need help if we saw the kind of devastation that we're seeing here." Obama was in Oklahoma to view the devastation firsthand and meet with survivors and first responders. He was accompanied through the scene by Governor Mary Fallin, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, and other local officials.

33,000 people affected

The tornado was one of the most powerful in years, damaging or destroying 1,200 homes and affecting an estimated 33,000 people, according to a recent update from officials. Initial damages have been estimated at around $2 billion.

Speaking to CNN earlier in the day, Governor Fallin said she is seeking help streamlining assistance to her battered state from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following the powerful twister, which ripped through this Oklahoma suburb almost one week ago, injuring 377 people.

"What I need is the ability to get through red tape, the ability to get the FEMA funds in here quickly and to get the services that our citizens need to help them recover through this terrible disaster," she said.

"The debris, as you can see behind me, is huge. It's not just a couple houses with roofs off," she said. "This is a massive debris field. It's not just a couple blocks. It's miles. It's 17 miles (27 kilometers) long, almost a mile and a half (2.4 kilometers) wide." The town of Moore suffered a similarly powerful tornado in 1999 that killed 41 and another in 2003. 

But Governor Fallin emphasized the community was also rallying together to move on. "We're resilient. There's already a big path of debris that's been moved around. People are gathering their stuff," she said.

"It's been truly remarkable to see how our people have responded and how strong they are." Part of that process has included taking up the threads of ordinary life, including holding scheduled graduations.

The United States experiences three out of four tornadoes in the world, but the one that hit Monday [May 20] was an unusually powerful EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale - the highest possible level - and touched down with little advance notice.

It followed roughly the same track as the 1999 twister, yet very few homes in Oklahoma - and neither of the stricken schools - had purpose-built storm shelters.