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President Obama signed a disaster declaration for Oklahoma, clearing the way for federal aid

10:37 AM, May 21, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- President Obama offered prayers Tuesday for the people of Oklahoma, and said the nation will back them as they seek to recover from a devastating tornado that claimed at least two dozen lives.

"As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue," Obama said at the White House.

The president, who had just received a briefing on recovery efforts, said Oklahoma "will have all the resources they need at their disposal."

Describing the devastation of the storm that ripped through the towns of Newcastle and Moore, Okla., Obama said that "in an instant neighborhoods were destroyed," and "among the the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew, their school."

Obama said officials still don't know the full extent of the damage, either in terms on economic losses or total deaths. He said the people of Oklahoma face "a long road" to recovery, but they will not travel that path alone.

"There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms and classrooms," Obama said; the task now is to re-fill those spaces.

Volunteers have raced to Oklahoma from all parts of the country, Obama said -- including a group from Joplin, Mo., which suffered a deadly tornado of its own just two years ago.

The president has spoken by phone to Oklahoma lawmakers, pledging federal assistance as damaged areas rebuild.

"The president praised the brave first responders, and made clear that the country would stand behind the people of Oklahoma as they continued to respond and recover," said a White House readout of phone calls with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole.

On Monday night, Obama signed a disaster declaration for Oklahoma, clearing the way for federal aid. The White House said he received updates on the tragedy throughout the evening.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been dispatched to Oklahoma to coordinate the federal government's response to the tragedy, the White House said.

The federal response includes survivor assistance, damage assessment, and search and rescue teams.

Obama's briefing Tuesday morning will include Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, chief of staff Denis McDonough, and other senior officials on his response team.

During a Monday night phone conversation with Fallin, Obama told the governor that his administration "stands ready to provide all available assistance as the governor's team responds to the storm and that he has directed his team to ensure that they are providing available resources as the response unfolds," said a White House readout.

The readout added that Obama told Fallin that "the people of Oklahoma are in his and the first lady's thoughts and prayers and, while his team will continue to keep him updated, he urged her to be in touch directly if there were additional resources the administration could provide."

USA TODAY

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