Expressing amazement at the destruction all around him, President Barack Obama on Friday stepped through the wreckage left by rampaging tornadoes and pledged help to those who survived but lost their homes in a terrifying flash. Said the president: "I've never seen devastation like this."
The storms have killed about 300 people in the U.S. South, mostly in Alabama. The loss of life — at least 299 dead in seven states — is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.
"We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," Obama assured survivors as he and first lady Michelle Obama walked the streets of a reeling neighborhood.
As Obama traveled throughout Tuscaloosa, 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 said back.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was harshly criticized as responding too slowly to another natural disaster, deadly Hurricane Katrina, which battered and flooded New Orleans and other parts of the South in 2005.
The high death toll seems surprising in the era of sophisticated radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful to avoid a horrifying body count. In one of its first official assessments of the tornadoes' strength, the National Weather Service gave the worst possible rating to one that raked Mississippi with 205 mph winds and said it was the strongest to hit the state since 1966.
'Is FEMA here?'
The president's arrival Friday drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery cart down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.
"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here?," he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."
The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Alabama, where officials were keeping the dead in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 were killed there, the search for missing people continues.
The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wants flashlights for the town's 1,500 residents because he doesn't them to use candles that could start fires.
"We don't have water to put out any fires," he said.
Elsewhere, drivers hunted for fuel for cars and generators after many gas stations were shuttered by power outages.
As many as a million homes and businesses in Alabama were without power, and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Virginia.
Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out the curious.
Heavy damage in Tuscaloosa
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city's emergency management center, so the school's stadium was turned into a makeshift one.
Hundreds of people walked in a long, slow procession down Tuscaloosa's main four-lane drag. Some shot pictures and videos of what had been a bustling community. Others came to search the wreckage of their homes.
Seventy-three-year-old Frank Frierson sat on a porch and marveled at the damage.
"It was God up there letting us now that he is the boss, what he could tear up and what he could destroy," he said.