WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and members of Congress pledged Tuesday that tornado-stricken Oklahoma would get all of the federal relief necessary, and the president approved a major disaster declaration to help small businesses and people who lost their homes.
The president also dispatched key federal officials to the state to view the damage and coordinate federal recovery efforts.
“So the people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes,” the president said in remarks at the White House.
“For there are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention.”
The president's disaster declaration will provide rental assistance, grants and loans to cover uninsured losses; unemployment benefits for people not covered by the state program; and aid to state and local governments for cleanup.
Federal disaster aid is available to affected individuals in Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma and Pottawatomie counties.
Several members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation flew back to the state Tuesday to join Gov. Mary Fallin for a tour of the damage.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a longtime resident of Moore, praised the work of local and state officials in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“In the days and weeks ahead, my staff and I, as well as my congressional colleagues from Oklahoma, will be doing everything we can to help those in need, comfort those who have lost family members and assist our local officials in getting the resources needed to recover and rebuild,” Cole said.
Media images of the destruction and rescue efforts in Moore prompted some emotional responses from congressional leaders.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, choked up while making remarks about the devastation.
“Whatever it is in our power to be helpful to them, we will do, and we will do quickly,” Pelosi said.
Boehner ordered the flags to fly at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Rep. John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, said Congress should approve disaster aid before leaving for its weeklong Memorial Day break.
However, it wasn't clear whether a separate funding package would be needed.
John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had $11.6 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund on Tuesday. Congress replenished the fund early this year for Hurricane Sandy aid.
Coburn drew some fire Tuesday for saying that the cost of any aid package for his state should be offset with cuts in other parts to the budget. Some Democrats — and even a key Republican lawmaker who oversees spending — countered that budget offsets shouldn't be required for disaster aid.
Hart said Coburn has argued since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that supplemental spending bills should be paid for by reducing spending on less vital priorities.
And, Hart said, “It is crass for critics to play disaster aid politics when first responders are pulling victims from the rubble.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration believes FEMA has sufficient resources to deal with the needs in Oklahoma.
“But we will, obviously, be making regular assessments with all the team members we have on the ground, working with state officials,” he said.
Congress did not approve a supplemental aid package exclusively for the 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma.
Feds deploy to state
Obama sent Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, to Oklahoma on Tuesday, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was scheduled to visit the state Wednesday.
“So for all those who've been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead,” the president said. “In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed, but you will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel it with you, fueled by our faith in the Almighty and our faith in one another.”
According to the White House, there were more than 150 FEMA personnel on the ground in Oklahoma on Tuesday to assist in the response, with more on the way.
The White House has not announced whether Obama will visit Oklahoma.
After the devastating tornadoes of May 1999, former President Bill Clinton went to Del City, which was among the hard hit areas.
“For goodness sake, build a safe room in your house when you rebuild,” Clinton told the crowd in one neighborhood.
Many Oklahoma residents used FEMA grants after those storms to build safe rooms, and then the IRS tried to levy taxes on the grant money.
Earlier this year, the city of Moore reported obstacles to its safe room rebate program. Changes in federal requirements to the city's Hazard Mitigation Plan were cited. And the city said there was not a lot of grant money available because there had been few major disaster declarations.