Reforms needed to federal disaster response, senators say in wake of Okla. tornado

(CBS News) Oklahoma has done "a great job" juggling needs in the aftermath of a monster tornado last week that wiped out an entire community and killed at least 24, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said Sunday on "Face the Nation." But with President Obama heading to Moore, Okla., later in the morning, he added, lawmakers need to reevaluate the way damage is calculated, because a sort of copout has emerged in which "you don't have to be responsible for what goes on in your state."

"With big storms like [superstorm] Sandy, or like this tornado, there are certain things that we can't do that we need the federal government to do," Coburn said. But even though the law stipulates that federal relief aid should only intervene when local resources are overwhelmed, he added.

"Oklahoma I think received over 21 different disaster declarations last year - where in fact some of those we were overwhelmed, but the vast majority of them we were not," Coburn said.

In addition to reforming "the way we calculate damage," Coburn argued, the way the system calculates economic damage, too, "disproportionately hurts the more populous states" like New York and New Jersey.

"And then we ought to have priorities about how we fund it, instead of borrowing the money," Coburn continued. "And then we ought to make sure the money is actually for the emergency at hand, not for four or five years later and not allow bills to be actually loaded up with things that have nothing to do with the emergency at hand."

Appearing with Coburn, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed that destruction from superstorm Sandy last fall was too extensive to rely on local government. And though it "took a while" to get federal funds approved on Capitol Hill, he said, "we're using that money well, and the recovery is well on its way."

"We've always had a tradition in America - when the hand of God strikes in a very serious way, the localities can't handle it by themselves and Americans band together and say, 'We're going to help the afflicted area,'" Schumer said. "So for generations, New Yorkers have paid out to hurricane victims in Florida, tornado victims in the Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama region, to fire damage states in the west.

"And when Sandy hit, some people were against it. But the bottom line is, America stood by us," Schumer said.

One area that could use improvement, though, Schumer said, is how long it takes for the money to be funneled down to homeowners and small businesses: "I think we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but it's taking a while," he said. "But as for the relief to government, as for the emergency repairs, as for building back our beaches, been very good."

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin earlier on the show also lauded "incredible stories about people helping people" as Moore residents dig through what remains of their lives in the rubble.

"I've heard stories of people who have come to help, from either across the state or out of state, and they come into these areas and they pick out a family at one of their homes, and they actually have pitched some tents in their yard areas so they can be ready 24 hours a day to help the people be able to go through whatever precious belongings might still be there," Fallin said. "There were so many volunteers out here yesterday. The streets were packed. There were a lot of people that had trailers, that were moving things hand by hand.

"...It's just been a really remarkable experience," she continued. "It's uplifted the spirits of the people that have lost so much."

Fallin said she'll tell the president during his visit that Federal Emergency Response Management teams have done "a great job" and were "here immediately on the spot." But noting with the scope of the damage it's "truly incredible that we had only 24 deaths," she said there's "going to come a time when there's going to be a tremendous amount of need once we begin the debris clearing, which we already have, but really get it cleared off to where we need to start rebuilding these homes, rebuilding these businesses.

"We know at different times in the past, money hasn't come always as quickly as it should," Fallin said. "So I'm hoping that FEMA will be very prompt in getting the relief here."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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