Obama Tours Destruction in Oklahoma

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(Credit: CNN)

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) — Funerals. Graduations. A presidential visit.

It’s been a weekend of highs and lows forĀ tornado-ravaged Oklahoma.

With some school buildings still in shambles, students received diplomas at a convention center on Saturday.

Funeral homes and churches were busy with services nearly a week after the devastating storm, which killed 24 people, injured more than 375 others and damaged 12,000 residences in and around the metropolitan area.

A public memorial and prayer service to honor the storm’s victims was scheduled for Sunday evening.

President Barack Obama caught a glimpse of the damage from the air before Air Force One landed in Oklahoma Sunday. He began touring some of the hardest hit areas and meeting with officials in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Sunday afternoon.

Speaking in front of the wreckage of the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School, he called for Americans to donate to help storm relief efforts.

“It’s going to take a long time for this community to rebuild, so I want to urge every American to step up,” he said, suggesting donating via the American Red Cross website.

Saturday’s graduation festivities were infused by reminders of the storm’s tragic aftermath.

When Southmoore High’s Alyson Costilla walked across the stage to get her diploma, about a dozen people in the crowd stood up and held up pictures of her mother, who died in a 7-Eleven ravaged by the powerful winds.

Transforming Moore back into the city it had been won’t be easy. Its public schools alone suffered $45 million in damage, including the two elementary schools that were leveled. Insurance claims related to Monday’s storm will likely top $2 billion, according to Kelly Collins from the Oklahoma Insurance Department.

But residents aren’t doing it all alone.

Besides the presence of FEMA representatives and other public officials on the ground, they’ve had friends, relatives, even strangers come out to help.

Sharon Liston has spent the last 25 years teaching math at Westmoore High, from which she’s retiring after 40 years total in the profession.

On Friday, a day before her school’s graduation, a caravan of students arrived at her home to clean up her 3-acre property.

“It looked like a wall of students with trash cans and trash sacks, and they literally picked up every stick within that three acres there,” Liston said.

As Obama got a firsthand look at the miles of debris left by last week’s tornado, the state’s governor told CNN that her chief request for the federal government is help plowing through regulatory hurdles.

“Basically what I need is the ability to get through red tape, the ability to get the FEMA funds in here quickly and to get the services that our citizens need to help them recover through this terrible disaster,” Gov. Mary Fallin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Fallin, a Republican, said the initial reaction from the federal government in assisting her state was fast and effective.

“So far we have had great response,” she said, quickly adding there was a long way to go before Moore returns to normal.

“This is a massive debris field. It’s not just a couple blocks,” she said. “It’s miles.”

CNN’s Nick Valencia, Kevin Liptak, Eric Fiegel, Greg Botelho, Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.