MOORE, Okla., May 21 (UPI) — President Obama Tuesday told Oklahomans whose lives were ripped apart by a monster tornado they would receive “everything they need” as quickly as possible.
“In an instant, neighborhoods were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, many more were injured,” Obama said in Washington. “And among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew, their school.”
Meanwhile, disaster workers crawled across piles of debris in Moore, Okla., hoping to find survivors of a giant tornado that laid waste to the Oklahoma City suburb Monday and killed at least 24 people.
“Our prayers are with people of Oklahoma today,” he said, praising teachers “who gave their all who gave their all to shield their children,” neighbors, first responders and emergency personnel who raced to help as soon as the tornado passed.
“[Our] full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” he said.
He said he spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallon and Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis to assure them they would have the resources they need. He issued a disaster declaration Monday night to expedite getting aid to the state.
“So the people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes for their homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, their parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention,” Obama said. “There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms, and classrooms, and in time we’re going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community.”
“In some cases there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed, but you will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel with you,” Obama said.
In a media availability, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pledged to work with the administration officials to make sure “they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma.”
Confronted by a question about the lack of support for providing aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October — some conservative Republicans indicated they were considering budget offsets as condition to the aid that was approved in January — Boehner said:
“Well, listen, let me just speak on behalf of all of our members, including those from Oklahoma, that we will work with the administration to make sure that they have the resources they need.”
Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said an earlier count of at least 51 dead and another 40 bodies in need of processing is no longer accurate, The New York Times reported. Elliott said the medical examiner confirmed 24 deaths.
Hospitals reported at least 145 people were injured, 70 of them children.
Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Brian Lamb compared the destruction in Moore to a “two-mile-wide lawnmower blade going over the community.”
Firefighters, police, National Guard members and volunteers worked by flashlight overnight and into Tuesday morning looking for victims of Monday afternoon’s disaster, CNN reported
Members of the Air National Guard brought in thermal imaging equipment to aid in the search.
The twister stayed on the ground for a full 40 minutes carving a 22-mile path.
Besides leveling numerous homes and buildings, the tornado destroyed two elementary schools. A third school collapsed but all students were accounted for.
The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful type of twister, The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City reported.
The storm, packing winds between 166 and 200 mph, was 1 1/4 miles wide and kicked up a ball of debris 2 miles wide, the National Weather Service said.
It touched down at 2:56 p.m. local time, 16 minutes after the first warning was issued.
The tornado first struck the town of Newcastle, about 20 miles south of Oklahoma City, and traveled about 10 miles to Moore.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission reported more than 61,500 power outages related to the storm.
It was the second day of severe weather in the state. A tornado touched down Sunday in Shawnee, 35 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, killing two men and injuring dozens.
Copyright 2013 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).