President Bush on Friday tried to lift the spirits of people in rural Macon County, which suffered the heaviest death toll from dozens of tornadoes that tore across Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama.
"There's no doubt in my mind this community will come back better than before," Bush said in the poor tobacco-farming area near the Kentucky border. "Macon County people are down-to-earth, hardworking, God-fearing people. They're just getting a little help and will come back stronger."
Even before Bush landed, he declared major disasters in Tennessee and Arkansas, a move that opens the spigot of federal funding to cover some costs, shared with local governments, for debris removal and protective measures and to help individuals. Sensitive to criticism it was ignoring other states hit by the storms, the White House said these were the only two states that had so far asked for help.
A barrage of tornadoes swept through those five Southern states on Tuesday, and the death count is nearly 60 so far, even as search operations continue. Macon County took the heaviest toll. A 14th death in the county was reported Thursday.
Viewing disaster from above
Bush began his visit to the disaster zone the way he usually does: by getting a look at the damage from his helicopter, in this case on his way in from Nashville. He was traveling with members of Congress from Tennessee — both senators and three local congressmen — but with a pared-down White House staff to keep his usually large footprint as small as possible.
As Bush's helicopter flew low over the hills of sparsely populated north central Tennessee, he saw snapped trees and remnants of buildings strewn across fields as if they had been dragged by the storm. The twisters' impact was random. Intact structures and destroyed ones were often just feet apart.
Bush said it was unfortunate that he had to visit the state under these circumstances.
"But nonetheless, the mission is to find out what we can do to help," he said.
The president received a briefing on the damage at a local fire department from a range of officials, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, the heads of the state National Guard and Lafayette Mayor Bill Wells. A coordinating officer from the regional FEMA office, Gracia Szczech, told Bush about the federal resources that have been committed to the area.
Her assessment was backed up by James Bassham, the director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, who said he had nothing but praise for his federal counterparts. Bassham said it was remarkable that more lives weren't lost, as 31 touchdowns were recorded. He credited early warnings from the National Weather Service and the state.
"People have got to understand here in the region that a lot of folks around America care for them now," Bush said. "And I'm here to listen, to determine — you know, to make sure — that the federal response is compassionate and effective."
Afterward, Bush was going to a neighborhood to get an on-the-ground look at the destruction.
In all, he was spending about 2 1/2 hours in the disaster zone. But it was notable that he sped to the region, arriving for a firsthand view less than three days after the tornadoes roared through.
Disasters have struck often in Bush's presidency, allowing him to display prowess in some but not all — most notably Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His and his administration's response in the immediate aftermath of that massive storm — and since — has persistently been criticized for leaving Gulf Coast residents and towns, particularly those in New Orleans, without the help they need. Bush has labored since to respond quickly, decisively and compassionately when disasters hit, but the impression of him cast in Katrina's devastation has never been erased and is likely to linger as part of his presidential legacy.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the government has learned many lessons since Katrina, and is much better now at not only answering locals' needs in times of emergency, but anticipating them. FEMA assets were in the tornado-struck region as early as Tuesday night, he said.
"States and localities have also given a lot of thought to the issue over the years and have improved their response as well," he said.