Emergency volunteers move a body recovered among the devastation in Smithville, Miss., after a tornado destroyed much of the town Wednesday. (C. Todd Sherman/Via AP)

President Obama will visit Alabama on Friday to tour the damage from a wave of deadly tornadoes, the White House announced Thursday. The president plans to meet with state and local officials and families impacted by the storms.

Speaking Thursday at the White House, Obama said “In a matter of hours, these deadly tornadoes, some of the worst we’ve seen in decades, took mothers and father, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, even entire communities.”

“The federal government will do everything we can to help you recover,” he said later. “We will stand with you as you rebuild.”

The president’s scheduled visit follows the death of more than 200 people across five southern states. The National Weather Service is describing the storms as the deadliest wave of tornadoes since 1974.

Five southern states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia — are reporting fatalities, with officials reporting at least 194 dead in Alabama and eight in Virginia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday that preliminary estimates suggest at least 164 tornadoes touched down across the region Wednesday, surpassing a record set during those 1974 storms.

Obama issued an emergency declaration order late Wednesday at the request of Gov. Robert Bentley (R-Ala.) request and was updated by telephone Thursday morning by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, who is traveling to Alabama to inspect storm damage.

Federal and state leaders said Thursday that the historic level of intense weather activity — and not a lack of preparation — is causing the high death toll.

“It was just the force of the storms. People are very aware in Alabama of tornadoes,” Bentley said Thursday morning in a briefing with reporters.

Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama, was one of the hardest-hit areas. At least 15 were killed there and the mayor said the city’s police and other emergency services were devastated.

Regardless, “People were very much aware of what was going on,” Bentley said. “You just cannot move massive amounts of people when it hits a largely populated area like Tuscaloosa. You cannot move thousands of people in five minutes.”

FEMA’s image is still suffering in the south following its botched response to Hurricane Katrina and other deadly storms in 2005. Fugate stressed that his agency “is in a support role” and taking cues from state leaders.

Federal assistance would be “for recovery activities,” Fugate said. “That would come from the governor through our regional offices and then to the president.”

Over the last three days, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it has issued 32 tornado watches across 18 states; 11 of the watches were classified as “Particularly Dangerous Situation Watches,” a designation reserved for the most severe weather events.

The watches resulted in 450 tornado warnings, with 113 of them issued in Alabama alone. NWS said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions into Wednesday night.

In a statement, NWS said that the threat of a widespread tornado outbreak was highlighted “exceptionally well” in long-range forecasts beginning last weekend.

Warnings for elevated threats of severe weather – including tornadoes, strong winds and large hail – was issued three days in advance by the storm prediction center, according to spokesman Christopher Vaccaro. By 1:10 a.m. local time Wednesday, Vaccaro said NWS forecasts were calling for “a very unusual high risk, including a higher probability of significant tornadoes, across parts of northern Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and southern Tennessee.”

NWS regional offices across southern states also issued their first severe weather notices late last week, he said.

The storms come as the federal government is monitoring the first-ever major earthquake drill across 11 midwestern states, including storm-ravaged Alabama and Tennessee. Fugate said the drill will continue as scheduled.

“We do have to be prepared for concurrent natural disasters occurring in this country, earthquakes being one of them,” he said, noting that FEMA is also providing assistance to wildfire relief efforts in Florida, New Mexico and Texas and dealing with the aftermath of severe flooding in other states.

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