VILONIA, Ark. – When man or nature has perpetrated mass violence on a community, the president often comes to bear witness on behalf of the country and assure the victims that they’re not alone.
And so President Obama toured this tiny, devastated town Wednesday after a tornado generating wind speeds of close to 200 mph ripped through late last month, killing 16 people.
Before the start of a three-day fundraising trip to California, Obama peered out the windows of Marine One at the wreckage inflicted on this Little Rock exurb, perhaps best known for being hit by another deadly storm three years ago.
He flew above homes flattened to their concrete slabs, splintered trees, the twisted metal of cars and trucks, crumbled stores and offices and a grieving community of 4,000. At city hall, he met with emergency personnel who responded to the April 27 tornado and with the families of people who died.
He then walked through a subdivision where most of the 56 houses had been shredded to bits. Wood, bricks, cars and the worldly possessions of more than 100 people sat in neatly bulldozed piles in the baking Arkansas sun.
The president shared small talk with some of the survivors, telling two men of the tornado, “This thing comes and the sound is just like a freight train coming down.” Then he made a short statement to the media, saying that the federal government was committed to helping and that the town’s strength was a testament to the residents’ spirit.
“I’m here to make sure that they know, and that everybody who’s been affected knows, that the federal government is going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt. Because when something like this happens to a wonderful community like this one, it happens to all of us, and we’ve got to be there for them,” the president said.
“More than any disaster, it is that dedication and that commitment to each other that truly defines this town,” the president said and quoted a resident who told him: “We just say a prayer, and then get to work.”
While the people of Vilonia and the other towns devastated by the storm understand there’s a lot of work that remains to be done, “I’m here to remind them that they’re not doing this work alone, that your country is going to be here for you. We’re going to support you every step of the way,” Obama told the residents.
The trip itself was devoid of any overt politics, but some commentators and politicians in Arkansas saw it within a political context.
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who is locked in a tight reelection campaign, invited the president to visit. Obama is unpopular here, where Pryor will face Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in the general election. Pryor remained in Arkansas last week to help coordinate federal response to the tornado, skipping a high-profile minimum wage vote in Washington.
“If he’s coming for the right reasons, I welcome him. If it’s a photo op for Pryor, then no,” state Rep. Stephen Meeks (R) tweeted May 4.
The president was joined on the tour by Gov. Mike Beebe (D) and Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), who is leaving Congress and running for lieutenant governor.
Storms have ravaged the South and Midwest this year, killing several dozen people. Obama has declared regions of Arkansas major disaster areas, authorizing the disbursement of federal aid.
Last month’s tornado, ranked EF-4, was one of the most violent in the country this year.
The 16 dead here included a baby girl who died shortly after birth. Her mother had been injured by the tornado. Beyond the loss of life, hundreds of homes were destroyed and vast amounts of property damaged.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and former president Bill Clinton — an Arkansas native — have all visited since the tornado hit.
White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said that more than 400 FEMA staff are on the ground in the region to assist with the storm’s fallout.
Obama has made a number of trips to states hit by natural disasters during his tenure. Last month, he visited Oso, Wash., after a deadly mudslide there killed 41 people.
“The president is traveling to the area to see firsthand the damage and to demonstrate a commitment, not just on behalf of his administration, but on behalf of the American people, to stand with the people of Arkansas and other communities throughout the southeast as they recover and rebuild from these storms,” Earnest said aboard Air Force One.