By Justin Sink - 05/21/13 05:36 PM EDT
President Obama on Tuesday pledged that Oklahoma would have the full support of the federal government in response to Monday's powerful tornado.
“As a nation, our full focus is on the urgent work of rescue and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” Obama said in brief comments from the State Dining Room.
A massive storm ripped through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday afternoon, killing at least 24 people, according to the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office. Hundreds of others were undergoing treatment at local hospitals. The National Weather Service said the tornado saw winds of up to 200 mph and, at its peak, was nearly 2 miles wide.
Obama called the storm “one of the most destructive tornadoes in history,” and warned that the "rumbling" of more severe weather continued over the Midwest. He spoke at the podium flanked by Vice President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“We don't yet know the full extent of the damage from this week's storm; we don't know both the human and economic losses that may have occurred,” Obama said.
But the president pledged that local officials “would have all the resources that they need at their disposal.”
Immediately before speaking, Obama met with top administration officials — including Napolitano and his chief of staff Denis McDonough — for a briefing on the government response to the tornadoes. He reported also speaking with Mayor Glen Lewis of Moore, Okla. — the town suffering some of the most severe damage from the twister.
“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them, as long as it takes,” Obama said.
Obama also took time to play the role of consoler in chief, saying the prayers of the nation “are with the people of Oklahoma today.”
“There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, bedrooms. Over time we're going to have to fill them ... with community,” Obama said.
On Monday night, the president declared a major disaster in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. The White House said those affected would be eligible for “grants for temporary housing and home repairs, [and] low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate has also been dispatched to the state to help coordinate relief efforts. Napolitano will travel to Oklahoma on Wednesday, where she is slated to meet with local officials.
The White House said Tuesday that "right now, FEMA has sufficient resources" to respond to the tornado, but that the government would continue to monitor the conditions on the ground.
Press secretary Jay Carney said "generally speaking" the White House has been "pleased" by Congress's willingness to fund disaster relief efforts in the past.
"The president has made clear that we will make sure Oklahoma has the resources that it needs, including the resources that have already been announced," Carney said.
But the White House looked to stay out of a brewing controversy on Capitol Hill over whether additional tornado damage would be offset by other spending cuts.
"It is too early to assess what kind of needs there will be as Oklahoma moves from the immediate recovery to assessing the long term damage," Carney said.
Obama and Napolitano spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) on Monday night.
“He offered any type of assistance he could give. We appreciate the president, the administration, FEMA, approving our emergency declaration so quickly last night,” Fallin told reporters.
This story was posted at 10:28 a.m. and has been updated.