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Obama to visit tornado-ravaged Joplin on Sunday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, ​May 24, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Saying he was "heartbroken" by the tornado's impact, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday in London that he planned to visit Joplin on Sunday to offer federal support for the cleanup and rebuilding there.

But Obama's commitment Tuesday to provide federal aid "until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt" was not embraced by every budget-conscious Republican in the U.S. House. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday that any tornado aid to Missouri would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

That appeared to rankle U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who spent Tuesday touring damaged areas of Joplin, which was in his former congressional district. "We need to prioritize spending, and this needs to be a priority," Blunt said in a statement. He added: "I'm sure Eric [Cantor] will help find the necessary off-sets."

Shortly after Blunt's statment, Cantor appeared to step back in a brief Twitter message: "Our hearts are w/ victims of #Joplin tragedy. House #GOP ready to help & has found offsets for emergency $$$"

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion to replenish disaster relief funds that were likely to run out in the wake of this spring's tornadoes and flooding. That extra disaster aid would be offset by a $1.5 billion cut from a loan program that aims to encourage production of fuel-efficient vehicles.

While Missouri was not specifically mentioned in the panel's bill, an Alabama lawmaker said the funding would cover expenses related to the Joplin tornado as well as some flood expenses in the Lower Mississippi River basin.

Obama said he would "travel to Missouri to talk with folks who've been affected, to talk to local officials about our response effort and hopefully to pray with folks and give them whatever assurance and comfort I can that the entire country is going to be behind them."

Speaking with journalists in the garden of the U.S. ambassador's home, the president said he and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano had called Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and "offered him not only our condolences, but we've told him that we will give him every ounce of resources the federal government may have that we can bring to bear on this situation."

While Obama was in Ireland yesterday and will spend today in London, he said, "We have been monitoring what's been taking place very closely and have been heartbroken by the images that we've seen in Joplin, Mo., in particular. The devastation is comparable and may end up exceeding some of the devastation that we saw in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just a few weeks ago."

The president told journalists that he had directed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Deputy Administrator Rich Serino to travel to Missouri "to make sure our federal government is working hand in hand with state and local officials to give them the help that they need."

Noting that well more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured by the powerful tornado that struck Sunday night, Obama said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who are suffering at this moment. And all we can do is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them and that we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure that they recover."

The president also made a commitment of federal support for rebuilding the devastated areas. "I want everybody in Joplin, everybody in Missouri, everybody in Minnesota, everybody across the Midwest to know that we are here for you. The American people are by your side," Obama said.

"We're going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet. That's my commitment, and that's the American people's commitment."

On Tuesday, FEMA's Fugate, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and several federal officials joined Nixon on a National Guard helicopter to view Joplin's damage. They later continued their survey of damaged areas on the ground. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was also in Joplin.

"You get a sense of devastation through pictures, but in person the scope is overwhelming. I can't imagine the pain of families who've lost loved ones," McCaskill said afterward.

McCaskill and Fugate planned to talk with Joplin's residents and meet with federal, state and local emergency managers. The federal government has taken several steps to make sure Joplin receives resources for recovery and eventual rebuilding.

Blunt, whose home is about 60 miles from Joplin, spent most of Tuesday viewing the tornado damage and meeting with federal, state and local officials. He was accompanied by Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield.

"This was a huge path of destruction in one of Missouri's major cities, and I've never seen anything like it," Blunt said in a statement. "I'll be working at the federal level to make sure Joplin has all of the resources the city needs to recover. Southwest Missourians are resilient; this community will lean on one another for help and will rebuild."

Long said in a statement to the Beacon that he "was happy to see that the majority leader [Cantor] tweeted that the House Republicans found offsets for the emergency funds" for tornado relief. "While we need to look everywhere to make spending cuts, making sure our first responder, disaster relief, and national defense communities have the tools they need will always be a priority while I am in Congress."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.