WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama said government agencies would do whatever was needed to help those affected by the devastating tornado that hit Oklahoma May 19.
“Oklahoma needs to get everything that it needs right away,” he said speaking from the White House May 21.
According to the the National Weather Service, the EF4 intensity tornado lasted 40 minutes. Winds approached 200 mph, and left a 20-mile swath of destruction through Oklahoma City and the suburb of Moore. It seems to have been the worst tornado in American history. At least 24 people were killed and around 120 are being treated in hospitals including 50 children.
The tornado wiped out whole neighborhoods including two elementary schools.
“There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms and classrooms, and in time we are going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community,” Obama said.
The president offered prayers for the people affected and gratitude to all those who helped, including the teachers who sheltered children, the first responders, and the rescue workers.
While authorities were still determining the extent of the damage, he said the main focus was on survivors.
“As a nation our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue and the hard work of recovery and the building that lies ahead.”
Obama declared Oklahoma a major disaster area May 20, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was quick to respond with workers already on the ground as a result of earlier storm warnings. A disaster declaration pledges that the federal government will cover 75 percent of most costs.
The number of those killed was revised downward on May 21, from 51 to 24 as authorities learned more about the situation. Among those killed were seven children.
Obama said he had just spoken with Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis to ensure that he was receiving what he needed, and had met with Homeland Security and Counterterrorism chief Lisa Monaco and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that morning.
FEMA head Craig Fugate was on his way to Moore. Search and rescue teams from nearby states had been deployed to help with operations.
Obama said “severe rumblings” of bad weather continued and noted that the hurricane season is due to commence next week, June 1.
Despite the uncertainty, he offered encouragement to the people of Oklahoma, noting their resilience.
“What they [people of Oklahoma] can be certain of is that Americans from every corner of this country would be right there with them, opening our homes and hearts to those in need because we are nation that stands with our fellow citizens for as long as it takes,” he said.