(CBS/AP)-- President Obama toured the devastation left by Monday's tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, on Sunday, calling the magnitude of damage "hard to comprehend" and urging Americans to "step up" their own efforts to help those whose lives were upended by the deadly storm.
The tornado - the strongest and deadliest to strike Oklahoma in several years - was part of a massive storm system that swept through Oklahoma on Monday, claiming the lives of 24 people, including 9 children, and damaging roughly 12,000 homes, of which 1,200 were demolished.
"A picture's worth a thousand words," said Mr. Obama as he stood beside Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., and a host of local officials. "What we're seeing here...gives you some sense of what the people of Moore and the people of Oklahoma have been dealing with over these last several days."
"Fellow Americans are praying with you, they're thinking about you, and they want to help," the president said. "So I'm just a messenger here today, letting everyone here know that you're not alone."
Mr. Obama, who earlier visited an elementary school that was flattened by the storm, thanked Gov. Fallin for a "quick response" that helped jumpstart disaster relief efforts, and he praised the local officials and first responders whose "strong spirit and sense of community" helped citizens deal with the destruction.
He also said he was "very proud" of the work done by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"They were on the ground when this happened and because of their quick response," Mr. Obama said, they "saved a lot of people."
"Their teams have now completed searches of more than 1,200 buildings," he noted. "We've helped to register more than 4,200 people for disaster assistance and we've approved more than $3.4 million in direct aid."
"Obviously there's a lot more to come, but it's not just a government response," the president said, commending the churches and community groups that have pitched in to help.
"This is a strong community with strong character. There's no doubt they're going to bounce back, but they need help, just like any of us would need help if we saw the kind of devastation we're seeing here," the president said. "It's going to take a long time for this community to rebuild."
He urged Americans to "step up" and donate to the American Red Cross to help finance disaster relief, which by some estimates could exceed $2 billion. He also urged those affected by the tornado to register for disaster relief at DisasterAssistance.gov.
"When we say that we've got your back, I promise you, we keep our word," Mr. Obama said.
The president also stressed the importance of federal grants that help communities prepare and train for tragedies like the tornado that struck Moore, saying it's "absolutely critical" that Congress continues funding disaster preparedness.
"I know everybody in Congress cares deeply about what's happening and I'm confident that resources will be forthcoming when it comes to rebuilding," Mr. Obama said, but "we can't shortchange that kind of ongoing disaster response. We can't just wait till the disaster happens."
The president said he was particularly touched by news reports of a Bible found amid the rubble that was opened to a passage reading, "Man will be as a hiding place from the wind and a cover from the tempest."
"It's a reminder, as scripture often is, that God has a plan," Mr. Obama said. "It's important though that we also recognize that we're an instrument of his will and we need to know that, as fellow Americans, we're going to be there as shelter from the storm."