Obama on Alabama tornadoes: ‘I’ve never seen devastation like this’
As officials across the South continued the grim business of counting the dead and caring for the survivors, President Obama on Friday toured some of the areas in Alabama hardest hit by tornadoes.
Obama and his family arrived in the morning from Washington in a flight that took them over a long wound of destruction. After landing in Tuscaloosa, Obama traveled by motorcade through the city where trees were toppled, neighborhoods flattened and debris and rubble were constant companions.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” Obama said.
“We’re going to make sure you’re not forgotten,” he told residents.
In a radio interview, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he had originally told federal emergency officials his city was a disaster. By this morning, he said he was ready to upgrade the description.
“I would classify it as a nightmare,” he said.
The death toll in his city stood at 38, a significant bloc of the 210 deaths reported in the state. The toll across the region stands at about 300, and those numbers are expected to grow as search efforts turn to recovery.
In Rosedale Court, a housing project for low-income residents, dogs trained to sniff for bodies combed through the rubble. One dog, Ryka, gingerly walked over mangled metal, piles of bricks and splintered wood. She passed an overturned baby carriage, a set of bunk beds, and a Valentine’s Day basket that still held two milk-chocolate roses.
At a pile of debris near the back of one apartment, Ryka stopped and barked sharply, eight times.
A crew of seven search-and-rescue workers descended with steel pickaxes. They wrenched away window frames, pipes and pieces of roofing to uncover what was underneath. But no bodies were seen.
“I don’t smell death yet,” said Tuscaloosa Fire Capt. Quentin Brown, who was overseeing the recovery mission. “And I hope I don’t.”
But if searchers were to find anyone alive in the rubble at this point, “It would be a miracle,” Brown said.
Resources were stretched thin across the city, Maddox said. In Tuscaloosa alone, about 900 were injured in the storms and thousands were made homeless. But Maddox also said he was heartened by the way the town has come together.
“I saw whites, blacks, young, old working together yesterday on a house to save this little girl,” he said.
Late Thursday, Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state to provide federal aid to those who seek it. He pledged the full cooperation of the federal government to help the state and the region.
“We can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it,” Obama said on Thursday. “And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover and we will stand with you as you rebuild.”
The politics of relief can be touchy, as the Bush administration learned in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Obama administration learned in dealing with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One that Obama “wants to witness for himself the terrible devastation from these storms.”
The extent of damage was wide. Officials estimate that more than a million people remain without electricity. Shelter is needed for thousands, and water, food and clothing are becoming issues. City officials urged residents to boil drinking water.
Alabama officials in a news release said the state had 210 confirmed deaths. There were 33 dead in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
The death toll is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states, according to the National Weather Service.
In Birmingham, where damage also was severe, weather forecasters began the day announcing that sunny skies would prevail over the weekend.
Radio and news broadcasts issued appeals for all kinds of basic supplies, and insurance advertisements asked people to begin assessing damage and submitting claims.
On the streets, National Guard troops rolled into neighborhoods where homes had turned into little more than sticks and debris.
Tennessee’s emergency management agency and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency recommend that persons traveling south from Tennessee into Alabama fill their vehicles with gasoline because power shortages have shuttered some service stations.
Linthicum reported from Tuscaloosa and Muskal from Los Angeles. Staff writers Richard Simon in Washington and Esmeralda Bermudez in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this article.
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