MOORE, Okla. — President Obama walked among 10-foot-tall piles of tornado debris littered with children’s schoolbooks Sunday as he offered the condolences of a nation to a town nearly wiped off the map.
Standing next to the rubble that was once the Plaza Towers Elementary School, and the place where seven children lost their lives when the tornado touched down a week ago, the president declared his confidence that Moore would rebuild and recover and pledged the support of the government, and the nation, toward that goal.
“This is a strong community with strong character,” Obama said with a grim face, as he stood with Mary Fallin, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, and other local officials. “There’s no doubt they will bounce back. But they need help.”
A president who is often locked in a struggle with Republicans over their disdain for expansive federal agencies, Obama has repeatedly found himself pledging the full power of the government to confront natural disasters. On Tuesday, the president will return to the New Jersey coast to witness the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.
In Oklahoma, Obama took a brief walk through the remains of what was a thriving suburb south of Oklahoma City. Planted in several piles of debris were American flags, flapping in the stiff winds of the warm spring day.
But the piles also contained reminders of the lives torn apart by winds that topped 200 miles per hour as the twister cut a 20-mile path of destruction through town.
There were 2012 yearbooks from the Plaza Towers school and one workbook titled “Jamal’s Surprise.” There were several water-logged encyclopedias and a pink baby doll stroller. In another pile was a purple plastic toy video recorder and a pink child’s parka.
Every few feet, crumpled cars blocked the way and twisted metal littered yards.
Secret Service agents stood in pairs on the roofs of military vehicles. Only the hum of a portable generator and the rush of a stiff wind could be heard.
As he has in other places — Joplin, Mo., the Jersey Shore, West Texas, Boston, Colorado Springs, Tuscaloosa, and the Gulf Coast — Obama was the consoler-in-chief, with the television cameras rolling. He promised Moore residents that his administration would stay with them — as it has, he said, in all of the other communities — as Oklahomans rebuilt.
The president’s visit symbolizes the money and resources of the federal government. More than 450 federal employees remain in Oklahoma almost a week after the tornado ripped through Moore.
Officials said about 4,200 people had registered for a total of $3.4 million in immediate and direct aid made available by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rebuilding will probably cost billions, with a portion coming from the federal government.
For Obama, natural disasters like the one in Moore provide a tangible example of his political philosophy — how a robust investment in government can provide returns for its citizens. The grim aftermath of each crisis can test the Republicans’ opposition to such policies.
Fallin has repeatedly said the federal government is bloated and inefficient and needs to be reduced in size and ambition. In her State of the State address in 2012, Fallin disparaged the federal government, making no exception for agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Our success stands in stark contrast to the record of dysfunction, failed policies and outrageous spending that occurs in Washington, D.C.” she told state lawmakers. “In Oklahoma, we could teach Washington a lesson or two about fiscal policy and the size and proper role of government.”
But faced with financial and logistical damages that are beyond the resources of her state, Fallin has acknowledged the need for federal assistance. In an interview with Glenn Beck on his Internet show, the governor explained the need to work with the federal emergency agencies.
“FEMA was very good to respond, and the president did call yesterday and they did give us notice last night that our federal emergency disaster declaration was approved,” she said.
In his remarks in Moore on Sunday, Obama made a point of noting that federal funds have not only paid for disaster relief efforts but also for training of local and state police officers and firefighters that helped them to respond quickly after the tornado struck.