MOORE, Okla. — After days of grieving and cleanup along Eagle Drive, a battered community took a moment to rest Sunday and welcome U.S. President Barack Obama, who after walking several blocks of one devastated neighborhood promised that the country would not turn its back on the residents’ recovery.
Speaking at what was until last week the brick campus of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed by the slam of a fearsome tornado, Obama offered equal measures of confidence and solace in the bewildering aftermath.
“This is a strong community with a strong character,” Obama said from the shadow of the school’s ruined classrooms, a 20-foot-high pile of debris behind him. “There is no doubt they will bounce back, but they need help.”
This city of 55,000 people has been blessed and cursed by geography, and along Eagle Drive the perils of its location were on tragic display. Its northeastern neighborhoods were thrashed by the tornado that, six days ago, touched down and slashed through homes, schools, a hospital and the lives of thousands.
Settled in the 19th-century land rush and named for a railroad worker who needed an address for his mail, Moore sits near the state capital and the University of Oklahoma — a location beneficial to its economy. But it also is in the path of frequent severe storms, most recently the mile-wide tornado that killed 24 people, including 10 children.
The visit was Obama’s most recent to a U.S. community recovering from a swift, brutal tragedy. Since his re-election in November, he has traveled to Newtown, Conn., after the school shooting spree that killed 20 children and six educators; to Boston after the deadly marathon attack; and to Texas to mourn the 15 killed in a fertilizer-plant explosion in the city of West.
On Tuesday, he will again tour coastal New Jersey for a look at the work to rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy last year.
So far, 4,200 people in Moore have applied for federal assistance, and $3.4 million has been approved in recent days.
Most of that assistance is for emergency housing. The total destruction has been estimated as high as $2 billion, with 1,200 homes destroyed and 12,000 damaged by winds that exceeded 200 miles per hour and the cars, street signs and other debris they carried.
Over the years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided $57 million to Oklahoma for the construction of roughly 12,000 safe rooms.
Those rooms saved lives last week, and Obama said in his remarks that the emergency response training, funded in part by federal grants, did as well. He called on Congress to make sure that those efforts are “not shortchanged” in the future as Washington’s argument over spending continues.
Obama walked along Eagle Drive in a stiff wind for a half-hour tour of the area hardest hit by the tornado. Federal and local officials joined him, including Gov. Mary Fallin, R, who on Sunday called for federal help in expediting aid assistance and building permitting so Moore can rebuild as quickly as possible.
Piles of metal siding, insulation, mattresses, children’s toys, clothes, wood planks and a twisted Ford pickup lined the street, where mailboxes were replaced by cardboard boxes bearing addresses written in marker.
Stark, pale tree trunks, stripped of bark and most branches, remained standing in once-green yards. A purple, plastic toy video camera and a dictionary marked the edge of one home’s unusable driveway.
Farther on, Obama turned into another rutted driveway, and behind a blue tarp where a fence once stood was the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School.
The debris contained the evidence of a once-vibrant school — encyclopedias and 2012 yearbooks, a textbook on Coretta Scott King and a child’s workbook titled “Jamal’s Surprises.”
Swept up in the mounds, some higher than the school’s original brick building, was a little girl’s pink parka alongside the colored continents of a laminated world map. Only the dull buzz of a generator and the rush of the wind broke the wide silence as Obama hugged, chatted with and consoled a line of school teachers and administrators, first responders, and parents. “I’m just a messenger here today, letting you know that you are not alone,” Obama said.
Obama noted that already city officials were printing new street signs for Eagle Drive and other damaged neighborhoods, proof of the city’s resilience. “Oklahomans,” he said, “have inspired us with their love and their courage and their fellowship.”
Obama then made a short drive to the Moore Fire Department’s Main Station 1, where a command post has been set up to oversee recovery efforts. After thanking the firefighters, police and medical personnel at work in the station’s main bay, Obama met privately with families of those killed by the tornado.
On a Sunday, in a community where churches have been central to sheltering those made homeless by the storm, Obama recalled the detail from a story he read about towns struck by another fierce tornado the day before one touched down in Moore.
A Bible lay open in the ruins to a passage from Isaiah: “A man will be as a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest.”
“God has a plan, and it is important for us to remember that we are an instrument of his will,” Obama said, calling on the country to donate to the American Red Cross and help Moore in any other way possible.
© 2013, The Washington Post