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UPI Focus: Clinton pledges aid to tornado alley

By JENNIFER BROOKS

OKLAHOMA CITY, May 8 -- Standing in the middle of what had been a comfortable suburb of Oklahoma City, President Clinton could only marvel that anyone survive the tornadoes that turned Dell City into a jigsaw puzzle. 'This is the most devastating tornado I have ever see. I have never seen such devastation,' said Clinton, who has weathered plenty of storms in tornado-prone Arkansas. The twisters that carved a 19-mile swath southeast of Oklahoma City were monster storms, the kind the weather forecasters see perhaps once a year around the entire globe. The tornado that erased parts of Dell City twisted houses into matchsticks, hurled cars into trees and sent debris flying miles away. But the residents greeted the president today with smiles, waves and American flags flying proudly over the rubble of their homes. Some people spray-painted messages on the remaining walls. A house with no roof and only two remaining walls was marked: '4 Sale -- with view.' Another family wrote: 'God bless this house, thank you for 30 wonderful years -- The Martins.' Clinton walked through the neighborhood, shaking hands and speaking with people trying to salvage what was left of their homes. One elderly woman, Jo Goodspeed, waited for the president in a muddy armchair that had survived winds that ripped her home down to its foundations. She greeted Clinton with an enthusiastic hug. Another woman told Clinton: 'You don't think a storm like this is going to hit you. You always think it's going to be someone else.

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It means a lot to us for you to come here.' Earlier, Clinton overflew the disaster site in a helicopter with Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. From the air, the storm's path was clear -- a swath of pulverized homes, farms and businesses, amidst nearby structures that were virtually undamaged. Staring out the window of the helicopter, Keating remarked, 'It's amazing people live through this.' Clinton agreed: 'It's a miracle. This is the biggest, most intense storm I've ever seen.' Hovering over one neighborhood, the president pointed out that in homes without storm cellars or basements, 'it seems like there's no safe place to hide.' On the ground, where the damage looked even worse, Clinton urged residents, 'For goodness' sake, rebuild your homes with a 'safe room' and we will be able to save nearly everybody next time.' Safe rooms, which start at about $2,000, are reinforced with metal or other material to withstand the force of flying debris -- a clear hazard in Dell City, where 250-mph winds hurled spears of wood and metal through walls and roofs. Clinton said he would also push for 'strong housing codes nationally.' More than 50 people were killed, hundreds were injured and at least 5,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by the storms that struck the Great Plains on May 3 and 4. Three people are still missing -- a British couple in their 60s who were touring the region in their camper when the tornadoes hit, and a young mother who was torn away by the wind as she, her husband and two children sought shelter. Search-and-rescue efforts are ongoing, but officials said today the efforts will be scaled back as they turn their attention to rebuilding. Eleven counties in Oklahoma and one in Kansas have been declared federal disaster areas, which will speed their access to disaster relief funds. And today, Clinton pledged millions of additional dollars to the devastated region. In his weekly radio address, the president offered jobs to the thousands of people thrown out of work when tornadoes destroyed their workplaces. A $12 million Department of Labor effort will set many of the temporarily unemployed to work in storm cleanup jobs -- delivering supplies, clearing debris and rebuilding damaged areas. He assured the crowd in Dell City the jobs would just be temporary and 'will pay a heck of a lot more than unemployment checks.' Clinton also promised to ask Congress for an extra $372 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund and $10 million to improve the National Weather Service's Doppler radar network. When he spoke to the crowd after his tour of the neighborhood, Clinton drew the loudest cheer when he praised the storm-spotters, who gave as much as a half-hour's warning to residents, giving many of them time to flee. With radar alone, the warning time is about 12 minutes. Clinton also encouraged scientists to come up with ways to lessen the severity of storms -- to defuse funnel clouds before they become monster storms -- although he did not explain how such a thing could be done. 'We can't promise there will never be another tornado, but we can promise we will help you rebuild. We can widen the frontiers of science to give you early warning,' Clinton told the crowd of several hundred residents and rescue workers who gathered to see him. Despite the widespread damage, Keating said there have been no reports of looting, and Oklahoma has not had to declare a curfew since the disaster. 'That is the real tribute to the spirit of Oklahoma,' Clinton said. 'That you could come through this with such a strong spirit is particularly moving for me.' ---

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Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---

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