TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — President Obama joined thousands of storm victims across the tornado-ravaged South on Friday in making his way past splintered houses along devastated streets, and he promised federal aid to help communities rebuild.
In the first major test of his administration in responding to a natural disaster, the president and his wife, Michelle, toured a ruined section of this city, where 39 people were killed and hundreds remained unaccounted for. They spoke with residents trying to salvage belongings in the aftermath of the week’s twisters.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” the president said. “We’re going to make sure you’re not forgotten.”
But as he, the Alabama governor and legislators visited Tuscaloosa, 150 miles to the northeast there was little sign of federal aid or government officials — an absence that revealed the immensity of a cleanup effort that spans eight states.
In rural DeKalb County, Ala., where 32 people were killed by the storms, Matt Bell ignored two black helicopters that flew overhead at noontime. Instead, he focused on a field of obliterated homes, scattered with pencil-size wood shards, shredded insulation, ripped paper, shoes, toys, towels — lives in a million fragments.
Bell was helping a neighbor look for documents. Asked about federal assistance, he just shrugged, as many in this county did Friday.
“It’s not really in the mind-set of people here,” he said. “People here take care of each other — you see perfect strangers helping.
“We’re not going to turn it away,” he added. “But if we need to set up tents, start a fire, fish and hunt, we’ll do that.”
The rash of storms constituted the nation’s deadliest tornado disaster. And the Obama administration’s reaction was being measured against that of the George W. Bush administration when confronted with Hurricane Katrina — a tragedy that brought Washington bitter criticism for its perceived tepid initial response.
In some quarters, there was preliminary praise for the reaction this time.
“Anything that we’ve asked for, they’ve gotten us,” said David Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
His state expected to issue a request for federal assistance as it recovers from the tornadoes and from flooding in northern portions of the state.
Maxwell said the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, W. Craig Fugate, and his deputies “are proactive, and they’re communicating with us regularly.”
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said he was “grateful” for the federal assistance and for Obama’s commitment to help.
Greg Flynn, a spokesman with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Fugate and FEMA “are just unbelievably proactive towards the states. They don’t wait for things to happen. By the time the storm is out of the way, they want to know what we need.”
Nationwide, 337 people were killed in the tornadoes Wednesday and early Thursday that swept up from the Deep South to the outskirts of Washington — making it the second deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. Hundreds more were injured, and some are still missing.
The largest death toll ever was on March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, according to the Associated Press. Until this week, the second deadliest day had been in March 1932, when 332 people died, all in Alabama.
This week, at least 246 of the deaths occurred in Alabama, with 34 more in Mississippi and in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.
In the DeKalb County town of Rainsville, some people wondered Friday whether the federal government, or anyone, yet grasped the scale of destruction across the state.
“I don’t think they comprehend how bad it is,” said Misty Himburg. She stood in front of her house, where only the closet in which she and her family took cover remained standing.
“I have had people send me e-mails: ‘Misty, are you okay?’ And I say, ‘No, I lost my house.’ And they say, ‘Oh, I had no idea!’ It’s weird.”
Search-and-rescue operations were still underway Friday across DeKalb, an area of rolling fields, far-apart brick homes, trailer parks and churches where people were hauling in water, fried apple pies and sandwiches all afternoon.
Local officials said they’d received plenty of extra manpower, trucks, squad cars and other support from neighboring counties and from as far south as Mobile.
Deputy Sheriff Michael Edmonson said federal officials had offered help, “but we’ve not seen any at this point.”
“If it came, we’d gladly accept, but in this county we take care of our own,” he said. “That’s the way we’re raised.”
Standing in a command center later in the afternoon, Police Chief Charles Centers was slightly less stoic. He glanced at his watch. He said the one thing he desperately needed — generators — was not forthcoming from the state, nor from the federal government.
“They were supposed to be here now,” he said of FEMA, which was to have begun taking names of those needing assistance and had promised trailers for the homeless, who are mostly staying with relatives and friends. “I’m fixing to go check.”
Across Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas on Friday, stunned residents picked over the ruins of their communities, mourned their dead and marveled at those who survived.
Locally, the National Weather Service said that seven tornadoes had been confirmed in the Washington area.
In Tuscaloosa, Obama looked solemn after viewing the wreckage.
“Michelle and I want to express first of all our deepest condolences not just to the city of Tuscaloosa but the state of Alabama and all the other states that have been affected by this unbelievable storm,” he said.
In the distance behind him, across large mounds of wreckage, people could be seen walking through the ruins of their neighborhoods.
“It is heartbreaking,” Obama said. “This is something that I don’t think anybody’s seen before.
“Our biggest priority right now is to help this community recover,” the president said as birds chirped and the breeze rustled ribbons of debris.
“We’ve already provided the disaster designations that are required to make sure that the maximum federal help comes here as quickly as possible. I want to just make a commitment . . . here that we are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who joined Obama under sunny, post-storm skies, said statewide there were 1,700 injuries and several people still missing.
Bentley and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox thanked the president. “The last 36 hours have been probably the most trying time in this community’s history,” Maddox said.
In Virginia, Gov. Robert F.
McDonnell (R) visited the devastated Washington County community of Glade Spring, in the southwest part of the state, where four people were killed.
“We saw tractor-trailers [that had been] literally picked up and thrown,” he said in a telephone interview. “We saw cars that had gone on top of houses. We saw a number of houses that were just literally demolished, nothing but foundations.”
McDonnell said Virginia has declared a state of emergency that will help bring aid to the damaged areas. “I am applying today for a federal disaster declaration for the counties of Halifax and Washington,” he said.
He added that Obama called him Thursday and promised to do everything he could to help. “I do know the federal government is obviously very concerned,” McDonnell said.
“Rebuilding is going to be a real chore” for the federal government, said Bill Waugh, a professor at the University of Mississippi and an emergency management expert. FEMA will need to move quickly to find enough temporary housing for displaced survivors, he said.
“These days, with the economy so bad, a lot of people have probably dropped their house insurance,” Waugh said. “So recouping the losses could be very difficult.”
McCrummen reported from Rainsville and Ruane from Washington. Staff writer Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.