Transcript: Press briefing on Air Force One

Read the transcript from the Air Force One briefing at Tinker Air Force Base.
Oklahoman Modified: May 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm •  Published: May 26, 2013
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MR. EARNEST: Good morning and welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Oklahoma, where communities were torn apart by violent tornadoes and severe weather earlier this week.

You’ll hear directly from the President later this afternoon, but he’s traveling today to offer his condolences to those who have lost so much, and reiterate his commitment and the nation’s commitment to the people of Oklahoma as they recover and rebuild.

This is the greatest nation on Earth and we’re going to dedicate this nation’s time, attention, resources and expertise to help our people in their time of urgent crisis.

Now, the President today will be looking at and talking about the heroic rescue and recovery effort that’s underway, but the full story starts earlier than that. On May 15th, five days before Monday’s destructive tornadoes, the National Weather Service’s storm prediction center based in Oklahoma forecasted a threat of a major severe weather outbreak in the area and communicated this forecast to state and local officials, the media, and the general public.

Two days later, on May 17th, they briefed national and regional FEMA personnel. On May 19th, the day before the worst of the storm, FEMA personnel were already in place at the state’s emergency operation center. On May 20th, at 10 a.m., more than four hours before the storm hit, the Norman Forecast Office hosted a conference call with local officials, including emergency personnel, school and hospital administrators, and other local officials about the potential for violent weather and the acute risk, in particular, at school dismissal time.

Now, as you’ve heard, 16 minutes before the tornado developed and 36 minutes before the tornado entered Moore, a tornado warning was issued. This is significantly earlier than the average tornado warning time of around 12 minutes. 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.

When Moore Medical Center took a direct hit from the storm, not a single person inside the hospital was injured by the storm because of the preparations that were made in response to the early warnings. These advancements made by government scientists in the field of weather forecasting at these agencies are dramatic and are saving lives.

Now, the response, led by state and local officials and supported by FEMA, has been heroic. More than 450 FEMA personnel are on the ground, including IMAT teams, urban search-and-rescue teams, emergency communications teams and others that were deployed within hours after the storm struck.

On Monday night, also within hours of the storm, the President signed a disaster declaration to free up additional resources and support for state and local officials, as well as assistance to the individuals affected by the storm.

So far, 4,200 individuals have applied for assistance, totaling $3.4 million. Now, people should know that they can apply for assistance by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or by going to DisasterAssistance.gov. This is in addition to the 43,000 meals, 150,000 liters of water, and thousands of cots, blankets, and tarps that have also been provided.

So that gives you a sense of where we stand today. And the President’s message is that support is not winding down. As demonstrated by our efforts in Tuscaloosa, in Joplin, and those communities in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey that were affected by Sandy, we’ll be standing with the people of these resilient communities as they come back stronger than ever.

So with that long windup, we’ll take some questions.

Q: So can I ask you a little bit about the recovery efforts? How much debris does FEMA have to haul out of here? Do you have any figures on that?

MR. EARNEST: I don’t any figures on that. I know that, again, it’s state and local officials who are principally responsible for those kinds of efforts, but certainly FEMA resources are often used to support those efforts. In terms of the cubic -- the volume or the tonnage of something like that, I’ll ask around a little bit when we’re on the ground and see if I can get you some more data about that. So obviously, I think we’ll see firsthand that the destruction was not just intense but widespread. So I’m sure the numbers are pretty staggering, but let me see if we can quantify that in some way. Q: And, obviously, in particular, one of the most tragic things was the deaths at the school. What have you learned about those children who were killed? Were they in one area of the school? Were they throughout? There are a lot of questions about structurally what should happen going forward with the schools.

MR. EARNEST: I actually don’t have those kinds of details in front of me, but we’ll see if we can get some more information about this over the course of the day today.

Q: Josh, is the President going to highlight the forecasting piece that you’re talking about?

MR. EARNEST: The President will have the opportunity when we’re on the ground in Oklahoma to talk to some of the forecasters that are doing some of the really interesting work here scientifically.

In terms of the advancements that have been made in forecasting, the advancements are really interesting, both because they are providing people greater warning in terms of time, but they’re also becoming much more specific in terms of being able to target which specific areas are likely to bear the brunt of the severe weather. So there’s some really interesting work that’s going on. And I think for a good reason, a lot of that work is actually going on in Oklahoma.

So some of the foremost experts in this field are actually based here in Oklahoma, and the President will have the opportunity to visit with some of them while he’s on the ground today.

Q: Josh, there is some reporting right after the storm about some houses and other public buildings either not having basements or not having safe rooms because of the cost. Does the President believe that there should be more federal funding for something like that? Or does he have a position on that at all?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we have seen that, particularly in these communities that take a direct hit from a severe tornado like the one that we saw here on Monday, that these storm shelters can be the difference between life and death.

I know that FEMA has already been instrumental in providing some resources to make the construction of these storm shelters more economically feasible. I think in just the state of Oklahoma alone, FEMA has provided $57 million in funding in the form of rebates and other incentives that would encourage people to build these kinds of storm shelters.

I know that Governor Fallin has talked about how helpful that thorough assistance has been. But obviously, these kinds of -- these shelters do make a difference.

Q: Josh, how much do you think this whole disaster area talks about the differences in the party -- what the parties believe about the size of government and what government should and shouldn’t be doing? Obviously, Republicans talk a lot about shrinking the size of government. Is a day like today an example of the President saying to those folks, look, you know, there actually has to be investment? I mean, is there a political element to that?

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