WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sent FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to Arkansas on Monday to oversee the federal government’s response to the deadly weekend tornado that leveled homes and businesses in Vilonia and Mayflower.
“I want everyone affected by this tragedy to know that FEMA and the federal government is on the ground and will help our fellow Americans in need, working with state and local officials,” Obama said during a press conference from Manila.
The president later spoke by telephone with Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe telling him that he had ordered Fugate to the state to ensure appropriate federal resources are being brought to bear to support state and local efforts.
Beebe toured the storm damage Monday morning and afternoon along with other state officials including Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
The president asked Beebe to inform him and his team of any additional resources that could be provided to help the communities impacted by the storm.
Obama spoke about the storm at a joint press conference on Monday with Philippines President Benigno Aquino. The two are holding defense talks.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, visited Vilonia and Mayflower Sunday evening about two hours after the storms passed through.
“This was a bigger and more powerful tornado than the last that hit Vilonia in 2011. That was bad — mostly taking off roofs of houses — but the one last night completely cleared foundations,” Griffin said. “One neighborhood I visited had 40 or 50 homes in a development built just a few years ago and it is gone.”
On arriving at the scene, Griffin said it was “sort of chaotic” with reporters, first responders on hand searching through rubble, volunteers looking for house pets and others.
“There was just a lot of activity,” he said in a telephone interview.
Griffin spoke with local officials there and then drove to Mayflower, where he spoke with the mayor and others. He was heading back to both towns on Monday to extend whatever help he could offer.
“I don’t have any doubt that this will be declared an emergency. We just need to make sure that the agencies move without delay,” he said.
Pryor was eating dinner with friends in Little Rock when the storms hit. He credited local news outlets with providing critical information to state residents — warning them in advance of the pending danger.
“They saved lives,” he said in a telephone interview.
Pryor toured the storm damage with Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. Like Griffin, he was awed by the power of the storm.
“Over the course of my life I have seen a lot of tornado damage but today’s was different. The intensity of this storm must have been that much more powerful,” he said. “You go into a neighborhood and it’s not just that a roof was knocked off but this tornado obliterated the house.”
Pryor expects that the entire Arkansas congressional delegation will work together to make sure requests for disaster relief will be expedited. Pryor has spoken already to Fugate and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to send that message.
Pryor and Griffin planned to remain in Arkansas on Monday and would decide Tuesday when they would return to D.C., where Congress returned to session after a two-week break.
Sen. John Boozman, who was released Sunday from Mercy Hospital in Rogers less than a week after undergoing emergency heart surgery, is receiving regular updates from his staff about the search and rescue effort as it unfolds.
“I will work with the governor’s office, the congressional delegation and FEMA Administrator Fugate to make sure that Arkansans get the resources they need to respond, rebuild and recover. We will help in any way we can,” said Boozman, R-Ark.
Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, issued a joint statement with Griffin Monday afternoon expressing their collective sorrow for the tragic loss of live caused by the storm.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected and hurt by this horrific storm, and we thank the first responders who continue to help those in need,” they wrote. “We will keep working to help our state and communities rebuild and ensure that federal resources are directed to the Arkansans who need them now.”
Womack and Cotton returned to D.C. Sunday night ahead of Monday’s legislative session.