GREENSBURG, Kan. — President Bush sought to lift spirits Wednesday in the wake of a killer tornado, dishing out hugs while stepping through the rubble of what had been a close-knit town of 1,400.
The president said he came to Kansas to tour the wreckage in the hopes that he could "touch somebody's soul by representing our country."
"A lot of us have seen the pictures about what happened here and pictures don't do it justice," said Bush, standing in the street in front of a brick one-story home that now has no roof. "There is a lot of destruction. Fortunately, a lot of folks had basements here in this part of the world and lived to see another day. Unfortunately, too many died," he said.
On a day that alternated between rain and sun, Bush got his first look from a helicopter that hovered over the ruins of the southwest Kansas town that was flattened last Friday night. The twister killed at least 11 people. It was the most punishing tornado to hit the United States in years.
On a short ride into town after his aerial tour, Bush got a rundown of the damage and the recovery from city administrator Steve Hewitt and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She and the White House had a spat a day ago - apparently now resolved - over whether National Guard deployments to Iraq had hampered the government's ability to respond here.
The president then went by foot down streets now little more than a snarled mess of mud, wood, glass and wires. Roaring at up to 205 mph and spanning 1.7 miles, the twister destroyed an estimated 95 percent of the town. Gone are almost every building, including churches, the city hall and the hospital.
Post-Katrina disaster reaction
Bush already had ordered emergency aid for the people, business and governments in the Greensburg area. His trip was about delivering something else - presidential empathy.
The White House has sought a much more aggressive and engaged reaction to disasters since Hurricane Katrina, when a bungled response became a turning point in Bush's presidency.
At one point, Bush stopped at a tractor dealership, the building gutted and its expensive plows mangled. It had been a major employer in town, and the president freely dished out hugs.
The surrounding neighborhood revealed a car stuck tail-first out of the top of a house. Trees were ripped of all limbs, looking like mere stakes in the ground. A spray-painted sign said politely: "Please pardon our mess."
The president ambled down the road to a house with no roof, almost slipping as he picked his way across a chunk of metal on the lawn. He briefly grabbed a chain saw, ripping it into action for the cameras and other media that accompanied him.
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"How are you all?" Bush asked as he moved among residents. "Stylish looking hat," he joked to a man in a green fedora.
Consoler in chief
The president spent about 20 minutes at a second house, where he posed for photos and listened to survivors. It was there that he addressed reporters for his only public words of the day. For his backdrop, a yellow crane in the home's driveway suspended an American flag while the trees in the front lawn had metal and plastic debris - including a giant upside-down tool box - wedged into what remained of their branches.
He offered prayers, condolences, praise and offers of aid.
"Whatever help is in the law (will) be here as quickly as possible," Bush said. "While there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead."
The homeowner, Kaye Hardinger, said people in the town appreciated the president's visit.
"It let us know he cared about us," she said.
She said she told Bush she would have "invited him in for a cup of coffee, but I didn't have time to dust."
Rebuilding a 'real American town'
The president's last stop before returning to Washington was at a makeshift command center for another briefing on the recovery efforts
Greensburg has been known for its friendly charm, right down to the old-fashioned soda fountain at the drug store. The town's proud claim to fame is the Big Well, considered the largest in the world to be dug by hand. Now the fountain is gone, the well buried in debris.Slideshow: Twister strikes
Though some locals said it was too early and too raw to feel confident about rebuilding, officials from Sebelius down to Mayor Lonnie McCollom said it would happen, with replacing the employment base the key.
"There will be money," the governor said. "These are resilient people ... We have an opportunity to rebuild a real American town."
Despite the tragedy, emergency officials know the death toll could have been much worse. An emergency warning about 20 minutes before the tornado hit helped people scramble to safety.
This is the third time in three months that Bush has played the role of national healer.
He comforted survivors of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia in March, and offered words of hope at Virginia Tech after a gunman killed 32 people and himself in April.
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