Obama tours Oklahoma tornado damage, vows nation has 'your back’

President Obama visited tornado-hit Oklahoma on Sunday, telling residents that “we’ve got your back,” and vowing to help rebuild battered towns.

“I promise you, we keep our word,” said the president.

Obama toured the Oklahoma City area six days after a tornado killed 24 people, including 10 children, and wreaked massive destruction. 

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The worst of the tornado’s damage centered on the 56,000-strong city of Moore, which lies about 11 miles due south of Oklahoma City. Obama made his remarks near the remnants of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, where seven children, all aged 8 or 9, died.

The president referenced other areas of the nation that have been hurt by natural disasters in recent years, including Alabama and Joplin, Mo., both of which were struck by tornadoes; and New York and New Jersey, which suffered grave damage from Hurricane Sandy last year. 

He sought to reassure Oklahomans by saying that it they were able to talk with people from those regions, “they’ll tell you that when we say we are going to be there until you completely rebuild, we mean it. I want everybody to have that confidence.”

The president noted that emergency teams had already searched more than 1,200 buildings and registered around 4,200 people for assistance totaling around $3.4 million.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), both of whom have been harsh critics of the president in the past, were among those who accompanied Obama as he toured the damage Sunday.  Also present was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Craig Fugate.

Cole, who grew up in Moore, has expressed his appreciation that the president called him soon after the tornado to express his sympathies. 

On Sunday, Obama noted Cole’s hometown connection once again, and said it meant that the tornado “carries a special sadness” for the Republican lawmaker but also brought “a resolve in terms of trying to make sure that the city of Moore bounces back.”

Earlier, Fallin had appeared on two Sunday morning talk shows, CNN’s “State of the Union” and CBS’s “Face the Nation.” In both appearances, she praised the president and the quick response to the disaster to date. But she also added that she wanted “the ability to get through red tape.”

Fallin tweeted out a photo of her and the president visiting first responders in Moore Sunday afternoon. 

Obama declared a federal emergency in Oklahoma on the same day the tornado struck, May 20. FEMA’s Fugate arrived in the area the following day. Last Wednesday, May 22, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also traveled to the region.

The response to the tornado has been a subject of some political debate, with the state’s junior senator, Tom Coburn (R) saying through a spokesman last week that he would want cuts from other areas of the federal budget to offset any new aid appropriated for his state.

But Coburn also noted in an opinion article for CNN’s website Friday that the question of offsets was likely to be moot, because FEMA appears to have adequate funds as it is. 

Coburn told Oklahomans that “any and all available aid will be delivered without delay.”

Cole (R-Okla) told CBS’s “This Morning” last week that he did not wish to “spend a lot of time on funding fights” in the aftermath of the tornado. He also noted that he had voted for the federal relief package after Hurricane Sandy last year.

Coburn opposed the Sandy measure.

Obama’s visit to Oklahoma came on a Memorial Day weekend in which politics— perhaps to the president’s relief — has been relegated to the back seat. On Monday morning, he and first lady Michelle Obama will host a White House breakfast in honor of families who lost members serving in the military before traveling to Arlington National Cemetery, where he will lay a wreath and deliver an address. 

Obama will seek to remain above the fray on Tuesday, when he tours New Jersey in the company of Gov. Chris Christie (R) to view rebuilding efforts seven months on from the destruction caused by Sandy.

A Memorial Day service for the victims of the Oklahoma tornado was due to be held in Moore Sunday evening, after the president’s departure.

“I’m just a messenger here today,” the president said, “letting you know that you are not alone.”

This story was updated at 2:57 p.m.