WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is heading to central Oklahoma on Sunday for a firsthand look at the devastation wrought by last week's tornadoes, and he plans to meet with victims and first responders.
The president will return to Washington on Sunday afternoon and is not scheduled to attend the memorial service in Moore being held that evening. The schedule released by the White House shows no public speaking event during his time in Oklahoma.
Gov. Mary Fallin and members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation avoided the president last year when he traveled to the state to talk about energy, and they have criticized him relentlessly on a range of issues.
But in the past week, Fallin and other Republicans have praised the administration's fast response and welcomed his decision to personally view the devastation.
Fallin said she's glad the president is coming this time, and she plans to greet him when he arrives in the state and accompany him on his tour of the affected areas.
“As we work to rebuild, we appreciate President Obama's kind words, compassion and his commitment to aid in the recovery effort,” Fallin said after the White House announced his plan to visit.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, who grew up in Moore, said the president called him to express his condolences and told him, “We know this is your hometown, this is your family, these are your friends and constituents.”
Cole, a Republican, said he was pleased the president was making the trip. He also plans to accompany him.
“These have been sad and difficult days for everyone in our state, particularly in my hometown of Moore,” Cole said. “As a proud, longtime resident of Moore, I appreciate the sincere and personal attention that the president and the members of his administration have provided since the awful tragedy of May 20.”
Obama called Fallin the night of the tornado and told her she'd have all the federal resources she needed. Within hours, he had signed a major disaster declaration and dispatched Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate to the state. Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, whose department includes FEMA, went to Oklahoma on Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, who toured the devastated areas Tuesday, said, “I think it's good that he's going back there. It's always great to have the president visit under any circumstances.”
Coburn said presidential visits to the scenes of major tragedies have become such a custom that it would be difficult for him not to go.
“The problem is: What do people say if he doesn't?” Coburn said.
Obama has seen the devastation wrought by tornadoes before. In May 2011, he attended a memorial service in Joplin, Mo., a few days after a tornado there killed 162 people and injured 1,150.
In his remarks, the president praised the community for “countless acts of kindness and selflessness” and gave tribute to those who died saving others.