President Obama on Friday reached out to the victims of the historic storms that ripped through the South this week, touring the rubble that was their homes and pledging “to make sure you’re not forgotten.” Visiting a community in Alabama that was devastated by the powerful tornadoes, the president saw the aftermath of storms that leveled whole neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, left thousands homeless and without power, and on Friday afternoon became America's deadliest tornado-fueled storm in 79 years, with more than 300 people killed.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” Obama said. Pausing amid rubble on 25th Avenue in Alberta, a somber president pledged “maximum federal help” to the victims. “We are going to do everything we can.”
Paying tribute to those who were killed, he said they are now “alongside God at this point.” But he promised their survivors that the government will be there to help them rebuild and recover.
"We go through hard times, no matter how hard we may be tested we maintain our faith, and we look to each other to make sure that we are supporting each other and helping each other. I'm sure that that spirit is going to continue until this city is all the way back," he said.
(PICTURES: Storms, Tornadoes Devastate the South)
The president's comments came as he absorbed the scenes of a community deeply deformed by the twisters, with trees uprooted and houses demolished. One young man told Obama he had witnessed debris lifting up all around him, yet he emerged with only cuts and bruises. "It's a blessing you are here," the president told him.
After touring the Alberta neighborhood, the president and first lady Michelle Obama went to Holt Elementary School, which was badly damaged but is now serving as an aid center. Standing amid clothes and supplies piled on the auditorium floor, the president heard from principal Debbie Crawford, who told him she and the school nurse have been on duty for 48 hours with only a four-hour break for sleep.
(PICTURES: Obama Views Devastation in Alabama)
“Thank you for helping, and I'm glad you're okay,” the president told her. Then, while the first lady was hugging one survivor, the president chatted with other displaced residents.The scope of the damage that Obama witnessed—and Alabamians are coping with—is hard to convey. One of the tornadoes cut a swath seven miles long and one mile wide, knocking down trees, leveling houses, tossing cars about, downing power lines, and scattering residents’ belongings to the wind.
Officials have warned that it may be weeks before power is restored across the state, with an estimated 250,000 residents without power on Friday.
Onboard Air Force One from Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president “wants to witness for himself the terrible devastation from these storms.”
It didn’t take him long to see that damage. To get to the hardest hit area, his motorcade first drove past several hundred Alabamians, many of them waving American flags. When he reached the area around 15th and McFarland streets, he saw trees down, buildings whose roofs had been ripped off, destroyed homes, and overturned cars. Throughout the area was the strong smell of gas.
He was joined on his tour by Alabama’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, local leaders, and federal and state disaster officials. On Thursday, the president declared an emergency in all of Alabama’s 67 counties and ordered federal aid into the state. The president also placed two National Incident Management Assistance teams on alert in case they are requested by the state.
Alabama was by far the state hit hardest by the historic storms that also struck several other states in the region, bringing the death toll to nearly 300. By Thursday night, state officials confirmed 210 dead in Alabama, with most of those deaths in the Tuscaloosa area around the campus of the University of Alabama.
The president had been scheduled to spend his Friday morning honoring the football team from the University of Alabama’s big rival, Auburn University, at a White House ceremony marking its national championship. But that was canceled after the storms. Also canceled were commencement ceremonies at the University of Alabama.
Although today's space shuttle launch was scrubbed, the president and the first family are heading to the Kennedy Space Center and the president will deliver a commencement address at Miami Dade College this evening before returning to Washington.
The original version of this story gave the incorrect name of the town Obama visited. It was reported incorrectly in the initial pool reports from reporters traveling with the president.
Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report.