MOORE, Okla. — President Barack Obama visited tornado-devastated Moore, Okla., Sunday, 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, saying "folks are behind you" across America. He offered moral and monetary support in the wake of the monstrous EF5 tornado that killed 24 people, including 10 children, last Monday afternoon.
Standing with Gov. Mary Fallin and other state and federal officials, Obama noted a substantial rebuilding job ahead and said that "our hearts go out to you."
"This is a strong community with strong character. There's no doubt they will bounce back," he said. "But they need help."
The White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.
For Obama, Sunday's visit had an all-too-familiar ring.
Only five months into his second term, he has traveled 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 a series of natural disasters including Joplin, Mo., and the Jersey Shore, which was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy last year.
Once on the ground, Obama urged the American people to make contributions, saying the damage was "pretty hard to comprehend."
Shortly after his arrival on a partly cloudy day, Obama rode 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.
"I know this is tough," he told superintendent Susie Pierce as he gripped her hand. As he walked, the demolished school was on his left and on his right, homes as far as the eye could see were reduced to piles of rubble. Vehicles were turned upside down and toys like a pink doll carriage and children's books were strewn with furniture and ripped out wall insulation. Every tree had been stripped of its leaves and bark.
Obama at one point joined the Lewis family, which lost their home behind the school. He said the important thing was that 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 later met privately with victims' families at Moore Fire Department Station (hash)1, which has turned into a command center with dozens of first responders sitting at folding tables where fire trucks are normally parked. Obama marveled that they saved so many lives "given the devastation."
"I know this is tough," he told superintendent Susie Pierce as he gripped her hand.
As he descended the stairs upon landing at Tinker Air Base near here, Obama was greeted first by Fallin, who had said earlier she appreciated the visit, but that her state also needed quick action from FEMA.
The Republican governor said that 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."
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 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.
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.
After Obama departed, Fallin hosted an interdenominational religious service that drew 2,000 people.
"God will give us the ability to mend our broken hearts," Fallin said at the end of the 80-minute service. "We may be knocked down, but we will rise up again, and for that we thank God."
Associated Press Writer Justin Juozapavicius contributed to this report.
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