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Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Immediate Needs, Future Safety Provisions

May 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Oklahomans affected by the monster tornado begin cleanup efforts, Judy Woodruff talks with Gov. Mary Fallin about the most essential needs of survivors who have lost homes or loved ones, how federal agencies are assisting in the recovery and what should be done in the future to ensure that residents have safe shelter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As of this afternoon, officials said six adults remain unaccounted for.

For more about the recovery efforts in the area and questions arising from this disaster, I spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin a short time ago.

Gov. Mary Fallin, thank you for talking with us. Tell us, how is the recovery going so far now after two days?

GOV. MARY FALLIN, R-Okla.: Well, the recovery is moving right along.

We have begun some of the recovery process of cleaning up the debris itself, and when I came in early this morning, I could see a change in the ground conditions, from the standpoint that debris was pushed off the side of the road, was being piled up in different areas alongside the grassway or the road itself.

So we’re making good progress. As I look over here to the side I see all kinds of utility trucks and construction trucks that are here in this parking lot. You see various workers around picking up debris, and even trucks that say construction on them. So we’re making progress.

We have also let the families go back into their homes to pick up their personal belongings, and hopefully they will be able to find some things they can save.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you say are the main needs this community has right now?

MARY FALLIN: Well, lots of prayer right now.

But the main needs are just having a way to get the different services they need. And we have FEMA here on the spot that’s helping with disaster recovery and helping with finding shelter, certainly temporary shelter for all the homes that were lost. A lot of people lost their clothes and shoes and food.

And so as I have gone to some of the shelters, there’s lots of shoes and clothes laying out. There are people coming in and picking those up. People lost, like, their cell phones. They lost their cars. They lost their purses, their billfolds, whatever it might be.

And so just providing the necessary services so people can just go about and live their daily life and hopefully someday get back to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned that FEMA is there. Of course, President Obama is going to be coming there on Sunday for a service. Is there something you will be asking him for?

MARY FALLIN: He is going to come in. We’re not sure what time he’s coming in during the day. And we do have a service and we’re working on setting that time right now.

So it kind of depends on his schedule and what he would like to do. He did mention that he would like to see where the ground zero is, per se, as far as where the disaster has occurred, to the school and some of the residential areas. I’m sure he might want to see some of the business areas.

But we appreciate him signing our emergency declaration so quickly, and glad he recognizes that this is a major event in our nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor, in retrospect, should there have been more of a state or local requirement for safe shelter, especially in public buildings like the schools and the hospitals?

MARY FALLIN: Well, the one thing about our state, we actually started a rebate program many years ago after we had a tornado that came through here in 1999, in which we initiated a rebate matching federal FEMA money, that we would give grants out to people who applied for those.

And they did have to make the application for that to put in a shelter in their home or their school or their businesses. And, of course, that is something that we would encourage people to do. And I do know that since new structures have been built, whether it’s homes or whether it’s been schools, that many of them have chosen to put shelters in.

Now, what happened here this past week is not something that happens every day in our state. It’s usually about one percent of tornadoes that come through in any season would be an F-5 tornado. So most tornadoes are not of this degree, and there are certainly safety precautions that the school took, and it’s terrible that we lost 24 people, but it’s also remarkable that we only lost 24 people with this kind of destruction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But shouldn’t public — especially public buildings like schools and hospitals, be required to have a safe shelter?

MARY FALLIN: Well, that’s something that we will be discussing this year, and certainly something that we will want input from, from the community itself, from the legislature. It’s — it’s also an issue that will require looking at the building code themselves and working with the local cities. But we do think we need to have a discussion about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it’s a good idea?

MARY FALLIN: Absolutely.

I think it’s a good idea that people should look at the possibility of putting in storm shelters. I won’t go as far as saying that we should mandate that, but I think we should make it as easy as possible to be able to do that.

And I was visiting with our emergency management director and our FEMA representative for this region, and FEMA told me they have spent $57 million dollars over the last decade putting in storm shelters throughout Oklahoma, both in individual homes and business and schools. That is a large sum of money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it does sound like a lot of that has been done, but I’m just curious why you think it shouldn’t be mandated.

MARY FALLIN: Well, it depends on if a school district can afford it, frankly. The schools and school boards themselves have to pass bond issues to build schools. And there are individuals in this particular neighborhood that was hit that may not be able to afford a $2,000, $3,000 dollar increase in the construction of their home or putting in a shelter in their home.

And we certainly would encourage people to do that, and we can look at ways, such as our rebate program, to make it financially more able to be able to reach the goal of putting in those homes — in the homes — or the shelters into their homes.

But, you know, I think that’s going to be up to the individual, certainly upon their budget, and certainly we have to take into consideration the state’s budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What other lessons would you say, Governor, come out of this experience?

MARY FALLIN: That information is key, that hitting the ground running very, very quickly is important to saving lives.

And we did do that. The minute I saw the tornado on television striking this particular area and saw how large it was, I called our adjunct general and told him we need to be ready with our National Guard, to have search-and-rescue teams and dogs that could go out throughout the debris itself to help locate any survivors that may still be around.

We were coordinating with our highway patrol, our public safety, certainly reached out to the communities and the mayors and the sheriffs and the police departments and fire to do everything we could to have good collaboration.

That’s one of the things I have learned over the many years that we have had disasters like this, is that the local people, the state people, and the federal people all have to talk and work together, or things just don’t work well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Governor, we wish you the very best with all the recovery going forward. And, of course, our hearts and prayers are with those who were injured and those families who lost loved ones.

Thank you very much.

MARY FALLIN: We appreciate you, Judy. Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: Online, residents of Joplin, Mo., remember their own tornado tragedy, which happened two years ago today, and pitch in to help victims in Oklahoma.