As responders, including at least 250 National Guardsmen, sifted through debris looking for tornado survivors, President Barack Obama on Tuesday morning told Oklahamans that they did not walk their path of grief alone.
“Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today,” Obama said, flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. “Our gratitude is with teachers, first responders and with all of those who searched to find the survivors through the night.”
He summarized the devastation and acknowledged the educators who had saved their charges’ lives at two devastated elementary schools. He said he had already spoken to Oklahoma’s top officials and assured them that “they would have all the resources that they need at their disposal,” he said.
“In an instant, neighborhoods were decimated,” he said. “Among the victims were young children who tried to take shelter in the safest place they knew, their school.”
At least seven children were killed at the Plaza Towers School when a wall collapsed on them during the storm, according to numerous media reports. Nine children in total were among the dead, including those seven. Many others were still missing. The death toll of 51 was revised downward overnight, to 24, as it emerged that some victims may have been counted twice. (Related: More Than 50 Dead as Tornado Decimates Moore, Oklahoma, Hometown of Rep. Tom Cole, and Levels School)
What was not in question was the scale of devastation. The EF4, carrying winds of up to 200 mph, is the second-strongest type of tornado on the rating scale. The two-mile-wide twister tracked for 22 miles with winds that authorities said were as strong as those of a category 5 hurricane. Obama said Oklahoma would have every resource at its disposal.
“Last night I issued a disaster declaration to expedite those resources,” Obama said. “I also just spoke with Mayor Glenn Lewis of Moore, Oklahoma to ensure that he’s getting everything he needs.”
Obama also met with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, he said, “to underscore that point: that Oklahoma needs to get everything that it needs right away.”
Craig Fugate, the director of FEMA, was already on his way to Oklahoma after dispatching urban search and rescue teams from Texas, Nebraska and Tennessee.
“The people of Oklahoma should know that their country will remain on the ground, beside them, for as long as it takes,” Obama said. “There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, and bedrooms and classrooms. And in time we need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community.”
Severe weather still threatened the region, and more than 40,000 people were without power. Neighborhood upon neighborhood in the Oklahoma City suburb was reduced to piles of sticks.
“Severe rumbling of bad weather through much of the country continues,” Obama said, “and we’re also preparing for a hurricane seasons that begins next week.”
He noted that Oklahomans are resilient as well as experienced with tornadoes in general.
“If there’s hope to hold onto, there’s knowledge that the people of Oklahoma are better prepared for this type of storm than most,” Obama said, but re-emphasized that as they rebuild, “Americans from every corner of the country will be right there with them—opening our hearts and homes and doing whatever it takes.”