“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.