President Bush told shell-shocked survivors of Hurricane Ivan on Sunday that "we're praying for you" as he made his third campaign-season trip to Florida and his first to Alabama to assess storm damage.
"The devastation caused by Ivan is terrible," Bush said after surveying hard-hit areas in the South. "This was a big storm that caused a lot of damage and a lot of suffering."
Bush said he was moved by the number of people who have stepped forward to help others in need. "The amazing thing about these catastrophes is how the American people rise to the occasion," Bush said.
The president first stopped in Florida, which was still staggering from two other recent hurricanes when Ivan hit.
"Hang in there," Bush told people picking up the pieces as he walked along a Pensacola street. The Florida Panhandle bore much of the brunt of Ivan, which came ashore Thursday night with 130 mph winds.
Bush saw homes obliterated, their lawns littered with broken lamps, clothes dryers, windows, chairs and microwaves.
In the devastation, he also found political support.
One resident held up a dilapidated piece of cardboard scrawled with the words: "George Bush. You have our vote!"
Another, Jim Heinold, waved a faded flag and asked the president to autograph a Bush-Cheney T-shirt.
"There are people who are worse off than us," Heinold told the president, who kissed the hair of Heinold's wife, Karen. "There are people who died."
Ivan cut a path of destruction across the South and Northeast that left more than 45 people dead, 16 of them in Florida. On Bush's way into Pensacola, the presidential motorcade passed a marina area where Ivan's winds had tossed powerboats onto grassy areas strewn with debris.
During his stop in Orange Beach, Ala., Bush walked on a white-sand beach where high-rise condominiums overlooking the Gulf of Mexico were reduced to piles of lumber. Those left standing had chunks of their facades sheared off, exposing refrigerators, washing machines and floor tiles protruding like tongues.
In what has become a familiar ritual, Bush visited a fire station to talk to emergency aid workers. "I want to tell the citizens of this part of the world that we're praying for you, that we'll get help out here as quick as we can and that we ask God's blessings on you and your families," Bush said.
Bush flew aboard Air Force One to Pensacola Naval Air Station from Maine, where he had spent the weekend at his family's compound in Kennebunkport. He was greeted upon his arrival by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Michael D. Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
When the governor told Peggy Riedel that he might be able to help her contact her insurance company, she ran for her insurance information. "We've lost everything," she said. "We've been condemned."
But she cannot get through to her insurance company. "Every time we tell them where we're from, they hang up," she said.
Sunday marked the president's fifth visit to Florida since Aug. 10, and his third tour of hurricane-damaged neighborhoods where hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan have killed 81 people and caused an estimated $13 billion to $18 billion in insured damage.
Bush has requested $5.1 billion in new disaster funds for aid and recovery efforts in Florida. Congress has already approved $2 billion of the request. The aid includes loans for small-business owners, a target audience of Bush's reelection campaign.