Powerful Tornado Struck Moore, Okla., 1 Week Ago

President Obama toured the wreckage Sunday, promising federal help for the people of Moore during what's sure to be a long rebuilding process. The president's message was not overtly political. He did, however, take the opportunity to highlight the important role the government can play — and not just when disaster strikes.

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Just a week ago at this time, the people of Moore, Oklahoma were going about their daily lives as usual. But weather forecasters were already on high alert for a dangerous storm.

The forecasters were right to be concerned. The EF-5 tornado that hit Moore last Monday afternoon was among the most powerful ever measured. By the time that funnel cloud relented, 24 people were dead, and some 12,000 homes had been damaged.

President Obama toured the wreckage yesterday, promising federal help during what is sure to be a long rebuilding process. The president's message was not overtly political. But he did take the opportunity to highlight the important role the government can play - not just when disaster strikes.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBLE AND DEBRIS)

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama stood amidst the wreckage of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, framed by toppled cinder blocks, twisted metal and soggy insulation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, a picture is worth a thousand words, and what we're seeing here, I think, gives you some sense of what the people in Moore and the people of Oklahoma have been dealing with.

HORSLEY: Some of the homes in the surrounding neighborhood are boarded up with plywood. But on the hardest-hit lots, there's nothing left to pound a nail into, just piles of shattered timbers. Still, in a sign of the residents' determination, some of those piles have fresh American flags sprouting from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: This area has known more than its share of heartbreak. But people here pride themselves on the Oklahoma standard. You know, what Governor Fallin's called being able to work through disasters like this and come out stronger on the other side. And that's what we've been seeing this week.

HORSLEY: Just down the road, at the Abundant Life Church, volunteers were offering food, water and prayers. In this deeply religious community, the president relayed the story of a Bible that was found in the wreckage of an earlier tornado. It was opened to a passage from Isaiah: And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: It's a reminder - as scripture often is - that, you know, God has a plan. And it's important, though, that we also recognize we're an instrument of his will. And we need to know that as fellow Americans, we're going to be there as shelter from the storm for the people of Moore who've been impacted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YES JESUS LOVES ME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so...

HORSLEY: Last night, the First Baptist Church in Moore hosted an interfaith prayer service for the tornado's victims, titled Oklahoma Strong: Coming Together in Faith.

Earlier, the president praised all those who've given their time, resources and spare couches to help their neighbors in need.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

HORSLEY: At a firehouse in Moore that's serving as a command center, the president thanked the police and firefighters who responded to the storm. Later, he met with forecasters from the National Weather Service, who began sounding the alarm about possible severe weather in Oklahoma five days before the tornado struck. Last Monday morning, those forecasters held a conference call to alert hospitals and school officials that the danger would be especially high right around the time school was getting out that afternoon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the earlier-than-average warnings from the weather service gave those in the path of the storm a precious few minutes head-start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOSH EARNEST: Sixteen minutes before the tornado developed and 36 minutes before the tornado entered Moore, a tornado warning was issued. Now, that doesn't sound like much time, but for many people, it's the time needed to find their way into a storm shelter or take other necessary precautions.

HORSLEY: A week later, the survivors are coming to grips with the massive cleanup and rebuilding job that lies ahead. The mayor of Moore, Glenn Lewis, says the town is already printing up new street signs. And Obama promised the federal government will stand alongside Oklahomans every step of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And when we say that we've got your back, I promise you we keep our word. If you talk to folks in Alabama, who've been affected over the last couple of years, you talk to the folks at Joplin, who I know have actually sent volunteers down here to Moore, if you talk to folks in New Jersey and New York, they'll tell you that when we say we're going to be there until you completely rebuild, we mean it. And I want everybody to have that confidence.

HORSLEY: The president will try to underscore that message tomorrow when he visits the Jersey Shore, where businesses are now reopening for the summer season, seven months after Hurricane Sandy.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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