Obama tours `heartbreaking` tornado damage, vows aid

President Barack Obama landed in Alabama to comfort victims of deadly tornado.

Updated: Apr 30, 2011, 00:09 AM IST

Tuscaloosa: President Barack Obama on Friday walked through piles of splintered debris in Alabama, pledging to help rebuild American communities after the worst US tornadoes in decades killed 300 people.

With grief and disbelief rippling across the region, stunned residents sifted through the rubble of their destroyed homes and emergency crews searched for survivors, especially in hardest-hit Alabama where at least 210 people died and cities and towns were left forever transformed by nature`s fury.

Entire blocks were obliterated in Tuscaloosa, a city of about 90,000 people, where Obama touched down to see the destruction first-hand, meet with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and reassure residents in the aftermath of the worst US natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I`ve never seen devastation like this. It is heartbreaking," Obama said after meeting victims whose homes were literally blown to bits.

He and First Lady Michelle Obama shook hands and hugged distraught residents, with the president pledging to help Tuscaloosa and dozens of other battered cities and towns across the US south.

"I just want to make a commitment to the communities here that we are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild," Obama said after touring wrecked neighbourhoods.

"We can`t bring those who have been lost back, they are alongside God at this point," but he pledged "maximum federal help" to cope with massive property damage and recovery costs.

Obama spoke as the first estimates about the magnitude of property damage emerged, with catastrophe modelling firm EQECAT saying the tornadoes could spell between USD 2 billion and USD 5 billion in insurance costs.

For those who experienced it up close, the effect of the powerful twisters was almost beyond comprehension.

"I never imagined a tornado could lead to such destruction in a city," Rose Livingston said outside her Tuscaloosa deli, where she and her children were loading boxes filled with produce, drinks and appliances into a truck.

Tornadoes and storms raging across eight states from Arkansas to Virginia left horrific destruction, essentially wiping some small towns off the map, scraping homes clear off their foundations and leaving thousands homeless and at least 2,000 more injured.

This week`s tornadoes, most of which touched down on Wednesday, have already claimed the lives of 303 people, while flooding killed another 10 in Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri.

But with dozens still missing and Bentley and other officials warning the body count would rise, the tragedy is likely to surpass the tornado outbreak of April 3, 1974, which killed 310 people.

Obama, who has called the damage "catastrophic," declared a major disaster in Alabama, which frees up federal search and rescue assistance and aid to the Gulf Coast state, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs and loans to cover uninsured property damage.

Aside from Alabama, the twisters left 34 dead in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, six in Arkansas, and five in Virginia, according to state officials.

They were among the strongest to ravage the US in years, with Mississippi officials reporting the tornado that ripped through the town of Smithville had wind speeds up to 205 miles (330 kilometres) per hour and rated at a rare, strongest-category EF-5.

"It`s pretty flattened," state emergency management agency spokesman Greg Flynn said of the town of some 900 people, 14 of whom remain missing. "At 200 miles an hour there`s not a whole lot you can do."

Survivors were counting themselves lucky to escape alive, but coping with the magnitude of loss was proving an enormous challenge.

"The tornado just came in and stopped right on top of my house," a weeping Macolee Muhammad told CNN amid the rubble of her Alabama home, searching in vain for her mother`s heirlooms.

"It`s devastating. I don`t know how to do this. I don`t have anything."

In Alabama, nearly a million people were still without power, and energy companies said it could take days to restore electricity.

"I don`t want to think now in how much I lost," said Robert Mitton in Tuscaloosa. "I hope we can get some help from the government.... My house is very damaged, but my family is fine."

The tornado disaster is already the sixth worst in US history, and when the final toll is known it may only be surpassed by the giant Tri-State Tornado outbreak of March 1925, which left 747 people dead.

Bureau Report