By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
MOORE — Six days after an EF-5 tornado killed 24 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage to Moore, President Barack Obama paid the city a visit Sunday. He got a first-hand look at the destruction and reassured residents that he was in the rebuilding phase for the long haul.
According to the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency has already provided $57 million in rebates and incentives to help build about 12,000 storm shelters in Oklahoma.
“When we say we got your back, we keep our word,” Obama said. “When we say we are going to be here until you are completely rebuilt, we mean it.”
Obama arrived at Tinker Air Force base at 11:42 a.m. in Air Force One and was greeted by Gov. Mary Fallin, whom he hugged, Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Midwest City Mayor Jack Fry.
Obama then took time to speak to some of the 350 Tinker personnel whose homes were damaged or lost in the tornadoes.
Along the route to Moore, people lined the roadways, many holding American flags or using cell phones to take photos of the passing presidential motorcade.
Obama’s first stop was Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven school children lost their lives in the tornado. As he walked up Eagle Drive, he stared at the scenes of destruction on both sides of him. He was met by Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis, Fallin and Cole as they toured the neighborhood around the school.
Obama and his group then stopped at a spot where a house used to stand before it had collapsed in on itself. All that was left was a pile of rubble.
As Obama and his entourage finally made their way to Plaza Towers, they were greeted by school staff, district personnel and first responders.
“Hello, everybody,” the president said as he approached the group.
The president, his sleeves rolled up, gave a long hug to Plaza Towers Elementary Principal Amy Simpson and spoke with her for several minutes. He also talked with Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillin, Moore Superintendent Susie Pierce and teachers who were in the building when the tornado struck.
“Obviously the damage here is pretty hard to comprehend,” Obama said. “Our hearts go out to the families who have been impacted, including those who had loved ones who were lost. That was true for the parents of the seven children here at Plaza Towers Elementary School.”
Cole told Obama that he grew up on the same street as the superintendent. Pierce reminded Obama that Cole is much older than she is, which brought a laugh from all three.
“I know what a hard time this as been for her,” Cole said. “This is the job of a lifetime. She always wanted to be a teacher, and she has to deal with this tragedy that no superintendent would want to deal with. She is phenomenal.
“I know what it meant to her and her principles that the President of the United States came. The leader of the free world shows up to tell you he’s going to be rooting for you, he’s going to be there for you.”
Obama also spoke with Scott Lewis, who got his son, Zack, out of the school and into a storm shelter minutes before the tornado hit.
“He just wanted to speak to the boy and tell him how brave he was,” Scott Lewis said. “Told us everything will be OK, reassured us. We told him how great FEMA was and the first responders. This is a terrific honor to get to meet him.”
Scott said Zack was pretty shook up Saturday after going to the funeral service of his best friend, who was one of the seven children killed in Plaza Towers.
Obama walked through what was left of Plaza Towers before making a statement.
“Obviously, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Obama said as he stood in front of a massive pile of rubble that used to be Plaza Towers. “What we are seeing here gives you some sense of what the people of Moore and the people of Oklahoma have been dealing with these last several days.”
With Lewis, Fallin, Cole and many others standing behind him, Obama lauded the work of Simpson, McMillin and the first responders as he pointed out that because of their quick response, keeping level heads and putting kids first, they saved a lot of people.
“I’m speaking on behalf of the entire country,” Obama said. “You are not alone. You’ve got folks behind you. This area knows heartbreak. This is a strong community with strong residents,” he said. “They’re going to come back, but they’re going to need help.”
The president’s motorcade left Plaza Towers and drove a few miles to Moore Fire Department’s Main Station No. 1, which has served as a command post for disaster recovery.
Obama spoke with emergency workers, many of them working at cafeteria tables in the station’s empty bays. He thanked them for their efforts.
“We could not be prouder of you,” Obama said. “When we say we’re committed to being here until the work is completed, we mean it. Everybody across the country is rooting for you.”
Obama met in private with some of those affected by the storms and families of the children who died at Plaza Towers before heading back to Washington, D.C.
“It was a very personal, down-to-earth experience,” Lt. Shonn Niedel said. “Way different than what I was expecting.”
Obama spent three hours on the ground in Oklahoma. In that time, Cole said the president showed that he was committed and made an emotional connection with the people of Moore.
“We know Moore is going to come back stronger from this tragedy,” Obama said. “We’re going to be with you every step of the way. This is a strong community with strong character. It’s going to take a long time for the community to rebuild. We know Moore is going to come back strong from this tragedy.”
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